THE LEGEND OF A MAN CALLED HOOT Hooter Borden

From the 1950s onward,
the rock ‘n’ roll bus driver cast a Zelig-esque presence upon America’s musical
highways (literally) and byways.

 

BY RODGER CAMBRIA

 

Ed. note: after
learning of Hoot Borden’s passing Sunday morning, May 2, in Nashville, his wife
Angie by his side, we began thinking we should republish this article that appeared in the January 2007 issue of
Harp magazine (BLURT’s predecessor). After the
original article appeared, we received a slew of mail thanking us for it; needless to say, it was a story that we were extremely proud of.

      We consulted with author Rodger Cambria
and determined that since neither
Harp back
issues nor the
Harp website are
available any more, it’s entirely appropriate to bring the story back once
again.

      Says Cambria,
“That article meant a lot to Hoot. Someone was finally acknowledging his
contributions to the rock and roll/country music business. He was a legend –
one of the true unsung heroes of the music industry and he had a front row seat
to much of music history. He won’t end up in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame
because they don’t acknowledge the people that really matter, instead inducting
some crap band like Sugar Ray. It just ain’t right.”

     And to that we say – amen. It just ain’t
right. Everyone from Ernest Tubb, Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson and Bob Dylan to
Michael Jackson, ZZ Top, the Raconteurs and Megadeth knew and respected the
man. Hence the profile you are about to read. Rest in peace, brother Hoot. Services
will be held Thursday at Bond Funeral Home in Mount Juliet, Tennessee.
(For a photo gallery of images that originally appeared in
Harp, go here.)

 

***

 

There aren’t many famous bus drivers in the world, and even
if you include cartoon characters, you can probably count them on one
hand:  Otto Mann from The Simpsons,
Ralph Kramden on The Honeymooners, and James F. Blake, who ordered Rosa
Parks off the Alabama
bus in 1955 for not surrendering her seat to a white man.  And then of course, there is Hoot Borden, the
greatest rock ‘n’ roll bus driver of all time.

 

On this unseasonably warm November afternoon, Hoot is in the
front lounge of his spotless 1998 Prevost coach, dispensing tasty nuggets of
country wisdom and spinning colorful yarns from a lifetime on the road. He
leans back, legs outstretched in front of him, and says in his trademark
Southern drawl, “You know, it ain’t fair the way Britney gets hammered in the
press.  You reporters always trying to
make a story where there ain’t one.”  He
coughs a bit of phlegm into a napkin and adds, “People forget she’s just a kid
from Louisiana.  She’s country folk.  In the South, everyone drives around with
their baby on their lap.  She’s just
doing what her momma taught her.”

 

For the record, Hoot Borden is 70 years old, and while it
may seem odd for a crusty septuagenarian to pontificate on the media’s
treatment of Britney Spears, it’s even more shocking when he comes out swinging
in support of the crotch-baring pop star. 
But when you get to know Hoot, and you understand his loyalty to the
artists he’s hauled over the years, his reaction makes perfect sense:  He’s protecting Britney, just like any
grandfather would.  Then he leans
forward, almost conspiratorially, and says in a low throaty voice, “I’ll tell
you what, though. I didn’t like her husband one bit.”  When I press him for a reason – and there are
many reasons to dislike Kevin Federline – Hoot replies candidly, “Because of
the way he wore his hat.  That crooked
cap pissed me off.”  And then, as if
speaking directly to K-Fed, Hoot growls, “You little son of a bitch.  I’ll show you how to wear a damn hat.”

 

To call Hoot Borden a bus driver is something of an
understatement, like calling Muhammad Ali a fighter or Tiger Woods a
golfer.  So what do you call a man
who’s been part of the American music landscape since 1950, whose very name is
the stuff of myths and legends?  Singer
Anna Nalick calls him “the rock star road daddy,” but I prefer to think of him
as the Godfather.  “Old Hooter’s driven
more miles backing out of his driveway than most people do in a lifetime,” says
Timmer Ground of Music City Coach, Borden’s longtime employer.  “He’s an old road dog, and the last of a
dying breed.”  Over the last half century
– and he’s never missed a week of work – Hoot has witnessed the birth of rock
and roll, and the rise of the music touring industry. His contemporaries, many
of whom he considers personal friends, include such heavyweights as Johnny
Cash, Ernest Tubb, Bill Monroe and Willie Nelson – all members of the Country
Music Hall of Fame, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, or both.  And though he spent his early days on the
country circuit, he’s hauled a wide range of artists from Megadeth and Cher to Patti LaBelle and Poison.  In the last year alone, he’s driven for Bob
Dylan, Rob Thomas, and Jack White and the Raconteurs.  But Hoot Borden is more than a chauffeur who
shuttles cranky superstars from one gig to another: He’s a symbol of a
forgotten era, when a business deal was sealed with a handshake, people took
pride in their work, and a man’s word was more important than his net
worth. 

 

When I catch up with Hoot at the Wells
Fargo Center
for the Arts in Santa Rosa,
Calif., he’s driving a crew bus
for legendary singer Anne Murray.  He
greets me with a warm smile and a handshake and invites me on board.  When we spoke on the phone a few days
earlier, I’d offered to meet him at his hotel, since most drivers sleep in the
afternoon so they can drive at night. “I’m more comfortable on the bus, if you
don’t mind,” said Hoot.  “This is my
home.  This is where I belong.”

 

Hoot Borden was born into an Oklahoma farming family, but his passion was
always music.  In 1950 at the age of 14,
he dropped out of school and left the family farm to become a professional
drummer.  “I was pretty good, too,” says
Hoot. “In those days, a recording session paid $42.30 – And that was good money
back then.”  Hoot’s knowledge of heavy
machinery from his farming days ensured that he got plenty of work – he could
play drums for a honky tonk band and keep the tour bus running.  “Most musicians was so poor, they bought
their buses off the scrap heap.  So you
weren’t trying to make it to the end of a tour, you was just trying to make it
to the next town.” 

 

He eventually landed on the Nevada Circuit, playing for
groups like Tex
Williams & His Western Caravan, The Starlighters, and Orville Couch, who
had five number one hits for Capitol Records.  
But his life forever changed when he quit drumming in 1959 to take a
full-time job driving country music pioneer Ernest Tubb and his band The Texas
Troubadours.  “I played my very last show
in Duncan, Arizona at a cotton gin that had been turned
into a dance hall.  And I been driving
these buses ever since.”  Hoot would
spend the next 24 years hauling Ernest Tubb and his band, playing every honky
tonk beer joint from Amarillo to Battle Mountain.  This is the point in the story when Hoot’s
adventures begin to sound like something out of Forrest Gump.  His travels would introduce him to all the Nashville legends,
including an unknown singer named Elvis Presley, who couldn’t get booked on the
Grand Ole Opry until Ernest Tubb gave him a spot in his show.  “I remember the first time I saw Elvis
perform,” recalls Hoot.  “I thought, that
long-haired son-of-a-bitch.
And then I saw how the crowd reacted to
him.  And I knew he was gonna be
something special.”  Hoot slides his
calloused hands into the pockets of his crisp denim jeans, and adds, “Elvis was
an enormous gentleman, right up until the day he died.  My son and Lisa Marie are great friends –
He’s even got a key to Graceland.” 

 

Over the years, Hoot would find himself in the company of
four U.S. Presidents, with a
standing invitation to Lyndon Johnson’s family barbecues at the 37th President’s Texas
ranch.   In perhaps his most Gump-like
episode, Hoot crossed paths with controversial Governor George Wallace, who had
fought against segregation at the University
of Alabama in 1963.  “We didn’t really get into the whole race
issue,” says Hoot, “But in the deep dark of night, I do remember the Governor
saying, ‘I didn’t really want to keep those people out of the schools. It was
the people who put me in office who wanted it.'”  Coincidentally, this is the same night in
history when the terms “pass the buck” and “cover your ass” entered into the
American lexicon.  Hoot was also a
first-hand witness to many of the technological innovations that would become
standard in the music industry today.  “I
watched Shot Jackson and Buddy Emmons build the first Sho-Bud steel guitar in
an auditorium in Witchita, Kansas,” says Hoot.  “Heck, I remember when Leo Fender built the
first echo chamber.  It was a little box
that sat up on top of your amp, and you’d hit it and it would go waa waa waa.”

 

Ernest Tubb’s band, The Texas Troubadours, spawned some of
the most influential country musicians of the modern era, including Cal Smith,
Billy Byrd, Tommy “Butterball” Paige, and a skinny young man with an awkward
singing voice named Hugh Nelson, better known to his millions of fans as
Willie.  “In the early days, Hugh would
fill in with the Troubadours and play bass guitar.  He didn’t look nuthin’ like the Willie Nelson
everybody knows today – He looked like a banker.  He wore a snappy suit with a skinny tie, and
he had a buzz cut.”  Hoot chuckles to
himself, and continues, “Willie had a tough time in the beginning.  He was writing all these brilliant songs – he
wrote ‘Crazy’ for Patsy Cline – but the world wasn’t ready for him as a
performer.  Back in ‘61, Willie was so
broke he sold the song ‘Hello Walls’ to Faron Young for $50 just so he could
eat.”  Hoot runs a hand through his
whitish, close-cropped hair, adding, “He didn’t become the Willie Nelson everybody
knows until he quit Nashville and moved to Austin, sometime around
1970.  That’s when the outlaw movement
was in its raw beginnings, with the long hair and the rebellion. He and Waylon kickstarted
that whole scene.  And the rest is
history.”

 

Hoot’s personal life is just as colorful as his professional
life, maybe even more so.  Here’s a list
of random Hooter facts:  He’s been
married five times, and he has three grown children.  His sons are both bus drivers – one of them
hauls Larry the Cable Guy, and the other pals around with Lisa Marie Presley
and has a key to Graceland. His daughter is on
a professional roller derby team out of Houston
called the Burlesque Brawlers, and she skates under the name Ashley Juggs. The
number on her uniform is 38D.  Hoot
swears he’s never had a drink of liquor in his life, and he lives on a street
with a funny name (Tater Peeler
Road).  He
also spent many years as a deputy for the Sumner County Sheriff’s Department in
Hendersonville, Tenn. He was a real officer with a uniform
and a license to carry a gun, which he still does.  And in between tours, he’d come home and help
rustle up bad guys in the greater Nashville
area.  Sheriff Hoot.  I couldn’t make this stuff up if I tried.

 

****

 

One of Anne Murray’s sound engineers climbs onto the bus and
tells Hoot that dinner is ready in the backstage catering room.  Hoot nods, and asks me if I’ll join them for
dinner.  Never one to turn down a free meal,
I accept his offer and follow him into the building.   As we move through the buffet line, various
band and crew members greet Hoot with the warmth and respect generally reserved
for the patriarch of a loving family. Everyone calls him Pops or Granddaddy
Hoot, and he seems to relish every moment. 
They save him a seat at the head of the table, and then gather around
like children pining for a bedtime story. 
Hoot sops a piece of white bread in some gravy on his plate, and
launches into the following tale:

 

“When I was with Ernest Tubb back in the 1960’s, we’d always
play this old beer joint in Austin,
Texas called the Wagon
Wheel.  They had the best chicken-fried
steak anywhere.  And every time we’d play
there, this little Mexican kid would come banging on the bus door.  So we’d let him on, and Billie Byrd would sit
there teaching him chords on the guitar. 
That kid didn’t know what notes he was playing, but he could play the hell
out of that thing.  Yes sir, that little
kid could play guitar.  His name was
Stevie Ray Vaughan.”

 

Hoot also witnessed the evolving cultural landscape through
the turbulent 1960’s and swinging 1970’s, and didn’t always embrace the
changes.  “I was a typical, hard-headed Tennessee boy, and I
resented the free-spirited nature of the hippie scene – the Haight Ashbury and
the Grateful Dead and all that,” says Hoot. 
“In Nashville,
Wanda Jackson couldn’t go on the Grand Ole Opry until she put a shawl over her
shoulders because she had a strapless dress on. 
But out there in San Francisco,
those hippies could walk around completely nekkid, smokin’ their dope and doing
whatever they wanted.  Talk about two
different worlds.” 

 

After driving Ernest Tubb and the Troubadours on the honky
tonk circuit for 24 years, Hoot’s own world was about to turn upside down.  On September 6th, 1984, Ernest
Tubb died in a Nashville
hospital at the age of 70, and Hoot Borden was without a job for the first time
in a quarter century.  With a wife and
kids to support and the country music scene struggling (it would be another
five years before artists like Garth Brooks and Trisha Yearwood reinvigorated
the genre), Hoot made the big leap to rock and roll.  His first tour was with Bruce Hornsby and the
Range, followed by stints with Foreigner, Journey and Jefferson Starship. The
differences between the Nashville
honky tonk circuit and the world of 80’s arena rock were staggering. 

 

“In country music, everybody had one tour bus, and they
stowed the music gear in the bays underneath. 
There were no trucks in those days,” says Hoot.  “But on a rock tour, there might be thirty or
forty buses and trucks. It’s like the damn carnival comin’ to town.”  He laughs and says, “I didn’t even know they
had concerts in arenas. I thought they was just for basketball and the circus.”
But it wasn’t just the size of the venues that was different – it was the
entire rock and roll touring culture. 
“With Ernest Tubb, we didn’t have tour managers or runners or even road
crew,” says Hoot.  “We’d set up our own
instruments and I’d sell the t-shirts. 
The band would do the show, and then we’d load the bus, swallow a
handful of pills and drive 800 miles to the next town.  It was like that every night.”  I ask Hoot about the technical differences
between the over-the-top stadium concerts of the 80’s and the old beer joint
shows held in dusty saloons.  “There were
no pyrotechnics on the honky tonk circuit,” says Hoot. “If you wanted fancy
lights, we’d run an extension cord from the bus to the stage and plug in a
lamp.  That was our light show.”

 

It didn’t take long for Hoot to adapt to the world of rock
and roll touring, and he hauled some of the biggest names of the 1980’s,
including Poison, Billy Joel, and Michael Jackson.  “I drove Michael’s family on the Victory
tour, all his aunts and uncles,” says Hoot. 
“Michael and his brothers, the Jackson 5, those boys could really sing.  They’d stay up all night working
on their dance steps.  Nice boys, all of
them.  I drove on several Janet Jackson
tours too.  That’s one talented
family.”  Hoot adds, “Most singers
nowadays are making millions of dollars and they got no talent at all.  If you’re gonna sit there and tell me Tim
McGraw can sing, you’re full of shit. 
Tim McGraw can’t carry a tune with a bucket.”

 

I arrange to meet with Hoot the next morning at his hotel in
a quiet suburb of San Jose in Northern
California.   It’s a day off
from the Anne Murray tour, and when I arrive, he’s out in the parking lot
changing the oil in his bus.  He waves me
over, yelling, “Come here, I want to show you something.”  I follow him around to the rear of the coach
where he lifts an enormous panel, revealing a shiny and spotless engine.  I run my finger along the top of the big
diesel motor and not surprisingly it is completely clean, without a trace of
grease or grime.  “She’s a beauty, huh?”
says Hoot with a wide grin.  Then he adds
the following kicker:  “Not bad for
having half a million miles on her.”  Not
bad indeed, and perhaps a little depressing since the engine is cleaner than my
kitchen.  This attention to detail,
however, is what makes Hoot a great driver and has contributed to his longevity
in the business.  “He’s in love with his
equipment, and he’s in love with his job,” says Joe Jackson, tour manager for
Anne Murray and Bryan Adams. “And he never places himself first. It’s always
about the bus or the artist or the crew. 
Everybody loves old Hooter.”

 

Perhaps the greatest testament to Hoot’s staying power in
the music industry is his relationship with the people he hauls, whether it’s a
temperamental pop star or a grungy road crew. 
Regardless of their position, social status, reputation, or background,
Hoot treats his passengers with dignity and respect. In 1988, Hoot drove the
much-maligned and oft-troubled Bobby Brown at the height of the bad boy
singer’s success.  “I have nothing bad to
say about Bobby Brown.  I hauled him and
six bodyguards, and we had a fine bus. 
We cooked food every night, and had a good old time,” says Hoot.  “You can take a guy with all kinds of
troubles, and you can teach him your way of life and he’ll think the world of
you.”  In one of his most fantastic
stories, Hoot recalls the night of a St.
Louis concert when a rival of Brown’s fired a rocket
launcher at the bus, exploding part of the rear panel.  “It was a real rocket, like the ones they’re
using Afghanistan,
and it blew up the back of my bus.  One
of the crew guys wrapped the smoldering shell in a blanket and took it home for
a souvenir.”

 

Hoot has also worked with difficult road crews, and he uses
his unique brand of country psychology to manage unwieldy situations.  The ZZ Top road crew was legendary for their
foul behavior and bus drivers kept quitting in the middle of their tours.  One fed-up driver unloaded the crew’s
belongings at a hotel in the middle of the night and left them stranded.  Another driver dropped their personal effects
at a 76 truck stop and went home.  So the
band’s management called Hoot for the impossible job. 

 

“Now these crew guys had been with ZZ Top since day one,”
says Hoot.  “Their production manager was
being sued by the city of Houston
because his front lawn was infested with rats. 
That’s the kind of degenerates we were dealing with.  These guys were animals.  They could totally destroy a bus, with puke
and piss and God knows what.”  Hoot knew
he had to take control of the situation from the outset, so he put an old Roy
Rogers movie on the TV, and got out the loaded pistol Ernest Tubb had given
him.  “And I was sittin’ right here when
they first got on the bus, cleaning this gun so they could all see it.  One of the guys asked me what we were doing,
and I said we’re watching Roy Rogers and cleaning this fucking gun in case I
need to use it.
  And I never had a
single problem with them after that.” 
Hoot developed a great relationship with the ZZ Top crew, dubbing them
The Filthy McNasty Boys, a name they still proudly use today.  “I got the swag guy to make up some ball caps
and t-shirts, and I had giant letters put on the side of the bus that said Hooter
and the Filthy McNasty Boys
,” he says. 
“After two weeks, the crew started cleaning their own bus, and they’d
make you take your shoes off before you came on board.  Because it was their bus.”

 

These days when he tours, Hoot prefers to drive the road
crew instead of the artist.  Perhaps it’s
because he’s tired of hauling cranky divas, but more likely it’s because he enjoys
the blue-collar sensibility of most roadies. 
“I love my little crew guys,” says Hoot. 
“They always say, ‘Pop, you’ve
got to meet my lady.  She’s the most
perfect thing.’  So his lady comes
out, and she’s about six foot tall, weighs about 88 pounds.  Got on sandals, with about 15 pounds of steel
in her tongue and her nose.  Tattoos all
down her body.  But that’s their lady.  That’s their pride and joy, so
you’ve got to treat them with respect. 
And that’s really the secret to this business:  Keep a good bus, don’t have a wreck, and
treat people with respect.”

 

Hoot Borden has touched many people’s lives over his fifty
some-odd years in the music business, and their affection for him becomes
tangible when you walk through the long corridor of his bus to the back
lounge.  The walls are lined with
custom-made plaques given to him by the artists and crews he’s hauled over the
years, including Megadeth, Billy Joel, and yes, ZZ Top’s Filthy McNasty Boys.  He puts his arm on my shoulder and walks me
through each one, reading me the personal inscriptions and explaining the
stories behind the stories.  “And this
one’s from the Elton John crew – they called me the Warden, and they all were
assigned prison numbers.  Nice boys, yes
they were.”  

 

And that’s when it hits me: 
This isn’t just a tour bus.  This
is a man’s home, and I’m standing in his living room.  The people represented on these walls are not
merely a byproduct of Hoot’s profession; they are his children and his
grandchildren, a sprawling lineage from a lifetime of labor and love. 

 

Singer-songwriter Anna Nalick, who rode with Hoot last
summer, says,  “He’s very protective of
me.  And every night before I go onstage,
he always says, ‘I
love you, Baby Girl.  Now go out there and sing your tits off!’ Only Hoot could get away with that because that’s his
way, and I love him for it.” 

 

I thank Hoot for his
time, and climb off his bus. And when this magazine hits newsstands, I’m going
to frame the cover and have it mounted on his wall with all the other lives
he’s touched.  Now go out there Hooter and drive your tits off.

 

 

 

 

 

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