Rock It: Local roadie tours with Kenny Chesney, Madonna

Posted on November 14, 2013


Rock It: Local roadie tours with Kenny Chesney, Madonna

By: Rachael Mattice

Austin Smith (Photo Provided)

Austin Smith (Photo Provided)

Technology glitches, back-breaking labor, bland catered food and months at a time away from home.

All part of the life of a music road crew, but another part is the thrill and excitement of working for artists in the industry.

McCutcheon High School and Purdue University graduate Austin Smith, 24, started life as a roadie through film studies classes, turning his video skills into real-world experience that landed him two jobs on tour with Kenny Chesney and Madonna in 2012.

With different responsibilities on each tour, Smith has gained new technical skills, networked to pursue more opportunities to tour with bands, and paved a path for side projects with film. Here, Smith talked about life as a roadie for Kenny and Madonna’s tours.

Question: What made you choose film studies and how did music influence your decision?

Answer: I always had fun with the camera, editing and putting movies together. I play bass for a death metal band called Mountain Grave and a party thrash metal band called Partiac Arrest.

My musical background helps me find rhythm and operate a camera and helps me project where I’m supposed to be and go, what kind of music and tempo goes with each shot. It was a great fit.

Q: Tell me more about the two major tours in 2012.

A: I started with Kenny Chesney’s “Brothers of the Sun” tour with Tim McGraw. Rehearsals started in April and it went all the way through August. Right after that I went onto Madonna’s “MDNA” tour, which went from September until November. Both tours took me all across every state, Kenny’s was more Midwest- and East Coast-intensive and I got to go to Canada during the stretch of Madonna’s that was in North America.

Q: What were your job duties?

A: I worked utilities with Kenny; this involved a lot of cable work with video like audio snakes, and I would lay out the cables and make sure everything worked correctly. On Madonna’s, I was a projectionist. Instead of LED walls, they had projection screens, so I would hang those and dial up the projectors.

Q: What was a typical day like?

A: Kenny had a hard schedule because a lot of the time we would do two cities back-to-back for a Saturday and Sunday show. The first day was easy because we would load in on a Friday and do the show on Saturday. 

We would get there at a reasonable time and do the show then load out. We then would go straight from that load out to another load in, do the show and repeat. It’s close to 40 hours of work with 3 hours of sleep. 

The food isn’t great, you get sick of the standard catering quick. Once and awhile we got time to go to a regular restaurant if we got done with load ins at a regular time. Madonna we had more breaks with days in between shows. We would have travel days and then load ins, but most of the free time of was spent on a tour bus.

Q: How physically demanding was your job?

A: It was very physically demanding. On Kenny’s tour, it was 100 degrees and humid during big stadium shows.

With Madonna, I was lugging around 400 pound projectors through the nosebleeds of an arena. Lots of sweat goes into the job.

Q: What was the pay like?

A: You get paid decent, but you are also off several months of the year so like anything, you have to spend it wisely.

Q: How did you manage things with your girlfriend?

A: It’s tough, but it’s easier with FaceTime and Skype. My family came to a show and my girlfriend came to a couple shows, too. I made the effort to talk to her every day.

Q: How did these opportunities come up for you?

A: I owe a lot to my professor at Purdue, Bill Callison. He would take us out and show us the ropes since he was a roadie himself and we learned a lot from him in the real world. We got loads of experience on those trips.

He took us to a country concert in ’09 which was a four-day festival with country artists. I did video there for Montgomery Gentry. I also did some other side gigs including a show for Alan Jackson.

More or less, it was a job from word of mouth. I was working at WLFI at the time and Bill called me and told me about the opening and that I should take it. They had a camera operator at Kenny Chesney who went to work with Madonna so they had an opening. I also had a friend on tour with Jimmy Buffet that gave me a message that Kenny needed a camera guy.

I was pretty happy with my job in Lafayette, but it was Bill that convinced me to go and got my foot in the door.

 Q: That’s how it went with Madonna too?

A: Madonna was a long tour since they started months before in Europe. They had people leave to pursue other things since it was a long tour. Since being a roadie is like freelance, they have an army of roadies they can call up to get to work.

The tour will contact a company that does video and contact sole proprietors and fill in the gaps for the jobs needed. LED technician, video director, engineer, utilities, projectionist – there are loads of things that go into the video crew. You have to be on top of things because if you don’t get back to them in a short time span they move on to the next person to fill the job.

Q: Any malfunctions or major accidents during a show?

A: It’s technology, so it’s bound to fail at some point. Luckily, we didn’t have any major mishaps. It’s a rough job and a lot of people do get hurt or even die from rigging on the top floor. A guy on Madonna’s tour smashed his finger real bad and had to go to the hospital and get stitched up.

Austin Smith (Photo Provided)

Austin Smith (Photo Provided)

Q: Did you ever meet either artist in person?

A: No, but we were around them building the show. They are very much just like any other business person, they are the boss and they expect the job done.

Q: What have you learned about the business?

A: A lot of perseverance, technical lingo and how to challenge myself to learn more. I also learned to have a lot of patience. To do your job means you have to wait for someone else to finish theirs, and then someone else does their job when we are done, it’s a big cycle. You can have a job that only takes three hours but turns into a whole day.

Q: Is touring something you want to continue pursuing? What else is lined up for your future?

A: In my time off, I write a TV show or work on a comedy act. I still want to try something in film and do a show or a movie. I don’t want to forget about that. I enjoy being a roadie, though, it’s a ton of fun.

I’m going on Kenny Chesney’s summer tour this year. Rehearsals start in February and that will go all the way to August. Rehearsals will be a few weeks and then get on the road in March. His first tour stop is in Tampa, Fl.

Q: What should other students do to get involved with a similar opportunity?

A: Study up; there is a world of information online and seek out the opportunities. Work as a stage hand when tours come through and someone will see your hard work and get you started on a path suited for your skills.

Mattice is a producer and music journalist  for the Journal & Courier. She can be reached at or on Twitter @RachaelM_JC.

Posted in: "Rock It" Column