By John Cochran
At some point, everyone wants to be a rock star. Admit it… we have all dreamed of the big stage. Some kids now get a chance to test the waters thanks to the rise in popularity of Rock Band Camps and Classes.
The summer rock band program at Full Scale School of Music in Mobile is an opportunity for kids of all skill levels to try their hand at playing Rock Music. The beauty of these programs is that no experience is required with an instrument. Throughout the week kids get a chance to play drums, bass, guitar, piano, wind instruments, or sing, as well as learning about music theory, rock history, and the different elements that go into creating music. I have found it easy to get a 13-year-old guitar players attention by introducing them to Led Zeppelin or Rush. They light up. And at the end of the week the kids get the chance to put on a live concert for their parents and friends.
I often wonder what would have happened if a program like this had been available when I was that age. We met in my buddy Taylor Sisson’s garage and did our best, with no instruction. I was obsessed with the idea of playing in a Rock and Roll band and spent countless hours imagining that I was on stage in front of thousands of screaming fans. Eventually, I found my way into making music my profession, but I certainly would have benefitted from some guidance in a band setting.
I must admit, however, this is not a story about Rock Band Camps… this is a story about a band that formed at a Rock Band Camp. I have had the privilege of teaching this band for close to 6 years, performed on gigs with them, mentored them, grown with them, cried with a few of them, been a part of their lives, and watched them go from middle schoolers to what they are now… freshman in college (I’m not crying, you’re crying). I am also producing their album, a collection of 11 originals and a cover of the tune “Why Does Love Got to Be So Sad” from the album Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs, but more on that album later. I consider every one of The Backseat Drivers to be my “little brother,” but in The Allman Brothers Band sense of the term.
I first met Andrew Travis, piano player and lead singer of The Backseat Drivers when he was just 13 years old. I was teaching at Azalea City Center for the Arts at one of their summer Rock Band programs. I had recently finished Grad School and moved back to my hometown of Mobile. Little did I know that I would end up working closely with Drew and that he would become one of my closest friends. Not to mention, Drew now 18, is now a member of my band and actively plays around the Gulf Coast with a variety of ensembles.
I also met a young guitar player named Emerson Roberts at one of these summer camps. It was apparent very early that both Emerson and Drew had musical ability that needed to be cultivated and so we decided to start a weekly Rock Band class. Emerson quickly became my prized guitar student and these two would become the founding members of The Backseat Drivers.
We met for two hours once a week at Full Scale and I would assign them songs to learn. This was a blast because I was able to teach young musicians the music that influenced me. I was fortunate to be mentored during my time in Nashville by former Allman Brother guitarist Jack Pearson. My cousin is also steeped in The Allman Brothers tradition and has played with Jaimoe, an original member of The Allman Brothers, and wielded Duane Allman’s Les Paul on stage when his band, Bishop GUNN, opened for The Rolling Stones in Houston. So, I passed our family’s musical heritage along to The Backseat Drivers.
We also started learning tracks of the classic album Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs by the Eric Clapton fronted band Derek and the Dominos. This album also featured Duane Allman on lead guitar. This would end up being an album The Backseat Drivers would play live in its entirety multiple times, including one performance in front of an audience of close to 2,000 at The Live at Five Concert Series in Fairhope in 2021. I have been the Promoter of this series since 2016 and their performance was the first and only time I have seen a band get a standing ovation, which was a significant “proud older brother” moment for me.
Early on we recruited players from other Rock Band camps and the lineup revolved for a few years until it became what The Backseat Drivers are now. Noah Condon on drums, and Zachary Kuehn on guitar as well as founding members Drew and Emerson. There was only one problem, we did not have a bassist. This is a common issue with bands… everyone wants to play guitar. Nobody wants to play bass. This became a major problem because the band had been offered their first gig, which was just 3 weeks away. The guitarist Zach Kuehn told us in rehearsal that he had a friend who played bass and we eagerly welcomed Gus Garret to his first rehearsal. Within 3 weeks he had mastered the bands set list of over 35 cover songs and was ready to play his first gig. The last piece of the puzzle was in place.
The big day finally arrived, as The Backseat Drivers prepared to play their first gig; customer appreciation day at Pinebrook Shopping Center. This would be the first of many, as the band proved themselves ready to be part of the bay area music scene.
This first gig led to an onslaught of opportunities. The band started playing venues like Moe’s Barbecue, Lucky’s Irish Pub, Loblolly Farms, Bone and Barrel, Page and Palette, as well as weekly residency at Old 27 Grill hosting a blues jam. Considering they could not play through a 12-bar blues when they formed, the fact that they were hosting a blues jam was quite the accomplishment. Any professional musician will tell you that there is no substitute for live performance and with the band playing an average of 8 gigs a month through 2019, their skills were honed, and they grew drastically. This all happened while the members were just juniors in High School.
In the fall of 2019, we decided the band was ready to record their first single. Drew Travis had an original song called “Talk About Me” that was recorded at Full Scale School of Music with Robert Hammond. With this finished, it was official, The Backseat Drivers were a band with their own original music out in the world.
After this first taste of recording, we began the discussion of taking the group into an actual studio to record a full length album. To fund this, the band started saving their own gig money and eventually came up with close to $7,000. It was decided that Dauphin Street Sound would be the place to best capture the groups original work, which now consisted of over 12 songs. It took us roughly 12 hours to record their first single back in 2019 but with the drastic growth of the group we were able to lay down the basis for 12 songs in just 3 days. The resulting album called the Ballad of the Truckstop Prophets will be available in December on all digital platforms.
What does the future hold for The Backseat Drivers? I am proud to say that the two guitarists, who both studied with me in private lessons, are going off to Music School to continue their studies. Zach Kuehn is headed to Berklee College of Music and Emerson Roberts is going to my Alma Matter, The University of Southern Mississippi, to pursue his degree in Jazz Studies with a concentration on guitar performance. The drummer Noah Condon is also headed to Southern Miss to study jazz while bassist Gus Garrett and front-man Drew Travis are both attending South Alabama. With most of the group here close to Mobile we will continue to book gigs and perform as The Backseat Drivers. I will miss the days of our weekly rehearsals as my little brothers move on to college, but I can say without a doubt that these young musicians had as big of an influence on my life as I ever did theirs.