With Lady Antebellum's bus fire and Thompson Square's tour accident in the background, Dierks Bentley led a posse of road warriors on a trek through north Texas Saturday (April 18) that closed with a sun-baked parking lot party in the afternoon.
Bentley played host as two streams of bikers departed from Strokers Dallas and from Longhorn Harley-Davidson in Grand Prairie, descending on Maverick Harley-Davidson in Carrollton. The ride was one of numerous activities that took place on the eve of the 50th annual Academy of Country Music Awards in nearby Arlington.
The ride was brief -- less than 11 miles from Strokers to Maverick -- but it had a larger purpose: to raise money and awareness of several charities that focus on children who've been physically or sexually abused. Those agencies include 444 Angel and Bikers Against Child Abuse (BACA).
"I think the ACM's really trying to maximize this weekend and get as much out of it as they can," Bentley said. "So you got Darius Rucker hosting the golf tournament, you got Luke Bryan and Justin Moore hosting the archery thing, and I'm the Harley guy. We'll help bring it all together and raise a lot of money for charities."
The riders had smooth sailing. Three counties worked together to close the freeway while the bikers rolled through. "Everybody got here safe," Montgomery Gentry's Eddie Montgomery said. "Any time that happens, it's always awesome."
Road safety has been one of the topics du jour as ACM activities ramped up this week. The bus that Lady Antebellum's Hillary Scott was riding blew a tire Thursday near Garland, Texas, while carrying 300 gallons of flammable diesel fuel. The driver quickly pulled over and all the occupants departed before it went up in flames. Nearly everything on the bus was lost, including custom stage wear for all three band members on Sunday's show. The bus had already been replaced the next day, but the news was a stark reminder for many of her fellow artists.
"That's the biggest fear, that something like that happens," says Will Hoge, whose new Small Town Dreams debuted this week at No. 15 on Hot Country Albums. "We're all incredibly fortunate that the majority of the time it doesn't."
Disaster struck again on Friday when a bus carrying Thompson Square band members was involved in a fog-related pileup in Denver that injured members of an alternative act Twin Shadow, that was also part of the multi-vehicle accident.
Keifer and Shawna Thompson were already in Dallas for ACM activities, but road hazards were already too familiar to them. "The other night, we almost got rolled out of bed because an 18-wheeler just took us out from the side," Keifer says. "The stuff that happens late at night is scary. Truckers falling asleep, driving too long. It's just terrible. You just keep your fingers crossed and hope you get from A to B."
That doesn't always happen. One of Carrie Underwood's truck drivers died in an accident in Connecticut in March 2010.
But more often, slick roads or faulty electrical systems have been merely inconvenient, instead of fatal. In the last five years alone, acts such as Toby Keith, Justin Moore, Clint Black, David Nail, Shenandoah and Josh Thompson have all had buses in fires or accidents.
Perhaps no one's been victimized more than Lee Brice. He was on hand when buddy Randy Houser's bus caught fire in Charleston, S.C., in 2011. Ten months later, Brice's bus went up in flames outside of Keith's I Love This Bar & Grill in Mesa, Ariz.
"We were running on grabbing as many things as we could -- guitars -- and the bus just sits there and burns in front of us," Brice remembers.
Oddly enough, just two months later, Brice was sitting on Jerrod Niemann's bus outside the Tivoli Theatre in Chattanooga, Tenn., when he smelled the familiar mix of smoke and burning plastic. They got off the vehicle but left the doors and windows closed.
"The pressure built up and that bus literally exploded," Brice recalls. "The whole front windshield blew out. All the windows blew out."
There were, fortunately, no travel disasters at the ACM bike ride, leading to a showcase for a few hundred people on the pavement at a makeshift concert stage behind Maverick Harley-Davidson. Bentley turned in a lively set, including the appropriate "I Hold On," inspired by a cross-country drive with his father in 1994 to Nashville, where Bentley forged his career.
Several artists threw in rock covers that worked for the heavily tatted crowd: newcomer Clare Dunn delivered a torrential version of Led Zeppelin's "Rock And Roll," singer/songwriter Joey Hyde (co-writer of the Swon Brothers' "Later On") offered a ringing remake of Tom Petty's "American Girl," and James Otto turned in a smoky reading of Bob Seger's "Night Moves."
Brice rolled out the appropriate "Parking Lot Party," enhanced with a mid-song medley of hits by Weezer, Magic! and Bruno Mars. He also tacked on one chorus of "I Don't Dance" for a couple that got engaged in front of the stage.
Hoge did a short set prior to the bike ride, but he declined a chance to hop on a Harley. He'd had a multitude of injuries in 2008 when his scooter was hit by another vehicle. The memory, and the months of rehab that were required, continue to haunt him.
"They offered me a bike," says Hoge, "and I said, 'I appreciate it. No thank you.'"