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Boots and Hearts – Saving Toby Keith’s Guitars

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Boots and Hearts – Saving Toby Keith’s Guitars – The Shadows Behind The Scenes

It took four long days to set up the main PGP “Black Monster” stage for the third annual installment of the Boots and Hearts Music Fest in Bowmanville ON. A crew of 30, slept on site and worked day and night through 25+c heat, rain, lightning and tornado warnings to make the deadline.

The company was Snap Hoek, one of the best A/V and staging staffing companies in the country. The festival was taking place at Canadian Tire Motorsport Park, a 60 acre property with four main campgrounds, a volunteer campground, a miniature city built backstage for production and multiple stages. We were responsible for the main stage and I was working as a stage hand helping to ensure the intricacies behind the scenes fell in to place as planned.

After a successful set up, we were ready for day one.


The scheduled line up for the day was as follows:

One More Girl
Deric Ruttan
The Road Hammers
Tom Cochrane
Paul Brandt
Toby Keith

The camp grounds started to fill up on Wednesday morning and the traffic continued until showtime. Tens of thousands of fans eagerly awaited one of the largest Country music festivals in North America.

The ‘A’ team stage crew were able to sleep in a little for our 10am show call on Friday. Forks ops were sent home and the 6am loaders were getting ready to cut in a couple of hours, things were going according to plan and on schedule. The sun was high with clear skies and with most of the the set up complete, we took a nice late afternoon lunch under the sun and waited for the show to begin.

BC’s ‘One More Girl’ started the day, and we prepped a quick change over for ‘Deric Ruttan’, everything was looking flawless. Then the storm predictions started to roll in.

Co-owner/founder John “Snappy Arms” Sabourin of Snap Hoek brought the audio team together for a briefing. A storm was coming and logistics needed to be worked out. The four audio hands responsible for lowering the field clusters were the same people who had raised them the day before. Paul Shearman, Jacob Duquette, Ilvars Sukse and Sean McLay, waited on standby for further instruction.

When ‘Deric Ruttan’ hit the stage the storm predictions became more frequent. Experienced audio tech/stage hand Sean McLay and I, took a moment to look out at the sea of cowgirls and country lovers.

“Nice view!” I said with a smile

“Can’t complain” replied Sean… “look up at that dark cloud!”
“no” as he pointed “over there! I’ve gotta pull that down if it hits”

He was pointing to four large stacks of speakers that were set up 200ft from us, way above the heads of the crowd, this is what Snappy was talking about earlier.

“It might not hit man. we’re good!” I said optimistically

Another min passed… “Well I’m going back to the stage, just in case” said McLay

“Yeah yeah, let’s get back there.” I affirmed

We sat on the loading dock for about 5 minutes when a dead warm air hit.

I took a deep breathe, the air was dry. I turned my head and looked out again to that point in the sky that Sean and I had discussed earlier, it was getting dark, widening and rolling fast towards us.

“Wholly fuck! You’re right! It’s coming!”

He ran out to the field and I ran onto the stage. No one seemed to immediately know what was going on as the band played on.

“Shit” I thought to myself “I have to to find someone in charge.”

Luke Westlake, Tom Cochran’s monitor guy, came over to ask if I could get him some tarps for his gear.

I acknowledged and ran back to the loading dock where I spotted Zane Hoek, partner and the other half of Snap Hoek.

He already knew what was coming and had a solid plan of action in place, this wasn’t his first rodeo. Between some muffled radio calls and a quick pow wow Zane turned to me and the others.

“Ok it’s coming!” he said

The stage manager was looking for hands

“Ok take Darrell” said Zane

Crew chief Ray Williams was standing next to me: “Here take this, you’re gonna need it to cut that shit” he said as he handed me his knife and sent me on my next task.

Off I ran to the production trailer to grab plastic to cover the gear on stage. Meanwhile the clusters were being dropped in the field, while climbers scaled the truss, risking their lives to drop weather walls.

I remember thinking to myself. “This is going to be big!”

I ran into fellow stage hand John Boyle as I entered the trailer.

“Where are the plastic rolls?” I asked

“Over there,to your right” he said

Boyle was one step ahead of the curb, already running back with roll number one. I grabbed one and followed him back. He dropped his on stage and disappeared, I dropped mine and looked at the width X depth and thought:

“60×60 = 360, +Dock, maybe the gear is spaced 5ft apart on the wings for each artist. Each artist has a riser? No wait, band 1,3 and 4 are sharing back-line. Band 2 has a riser out there and Toby Keith has his own self inclusive center stage set up. Math math, hmmm…. More than 200ft less than 300ft, close enough, we’ll need more” as I headed back to grab more.

I entered the trailer for the second time and ran into Brian head of production for promoter Republic Live.

“Those rolls are 100ft” he said

“We’ll need one more” I replied

“Ok, go go go!!!” he said in an encouraging motion as people in the back of the trailer scrambled on radios and laptops.

I returned to the stage and opened the first roll in monitor land. I looked up to see that the weather walls were dropped.

“I have plastic! Over here!” I yelled, as I started cutting off sections and handing them off to whoever needed it.

Westlake (Cochrane’s monitor engineer) came over again.

“I’ve got this for you!” I said pointing to the plastic, “take as much as you need!” I helped him cut off some sections and off he went.

Police were standing on the wings and people were scrambling as Deric Ruttan finished off their set. Moments later Brian from Republic Live took centre stage with the two police officers to announce that a storm was coming and that everyone should clear the field.

“We need to cover our console here help me with this tarp,” said Kevin from the VER, the company that supplied the sound system. We quickly covered house monitor land (there were 3 monitor lands) before I went back out on stage and noticed that the guitar tech for The Road Hammers still hadn’t covered his gear.

“Come over here, take some of this” I said

“Thanks man!” he said

“No problem take more! Take it now, whatever you need, lets do this!” I said

By this time the first roll was done and the second roll was halfway there. One of the stage managers needed some.

“I need a lot.” he said

“Here take what’s left of this” I said as I went back to cut open the third roll.

No one could hear through the ensuing chaos and raising winds. I lifted the last roll up over my head so people could see, “over here, wrap up everything!”

More people, guitar techs, drum techs and stage mangers came over as we unrolled more plastic

I heard from the corner of my ear.

“Wholly shit, I can’t be under here (monitor land) when they drop that” I remember thinking.

I walked across the stage. Some people were wrapping up drum risers, people were securing down plastic with mic stand bases, some we’re taking gear off the stage. It was like a team of army ants on a mission as everyone from Snap Hoek moved like a well oiled machine. I arrived at the other wing only to find that all of Toby Keith’s stuff was still wide open and untouched.

I found crew chief Ray.

“Ray I need hands to help get Toby Keith’s stuff covered, it hasn’t been touched and I don’t know where his guys are!

“Here take Chantal”. he said

Chantal Skrynski is an experienced stage hand and all around professional who knows what’s going on.

“Perfect” I thought to myself “ok let’s get some plastic”

“We’ll need 4 large sections at least 10-12ft long” I said

She stated pulling it off as fast a I could cut it.

“You’ve don’t this once before?” I said jokingly

“Yeah…” she chuckled with a smile.

Off we went with the sheets across the back of the stage to save Toby Keith’s guitars.
Then he appeared, Bill “Ripp” Mayes aka Ripper, Toby’s guitar tech from Nashville Tennessee.

“You’re with Toby Keith?” I asked

“Yup” said Ripp

“Ok, tell us what you need”

The wind had picked up dramatically as people in the field and on the stage were starting to clear. We began to cover the equipment in and around Keith’s monitor land. However, the guitars had been left fully opened and exposed. If you want to check out these guitars, they’re pretty similar to the ones he had.

“Take this back to the truck!” said Ripp. “it’s all strapped in, take your time, it’ll be alright.”

and I tunneled through the madness, carrying thousands of dollars worth of guitars that had certainly been through worse.

I remember thinking how cool it was to be carrying the same guitars that Keith had undoubtedly toured and recorded with for many years.

We didn’t have time to inspect each one or even get the model numbers or history of each axe, but I was sure that each and every one could tell a story.

“Ok that ones safe! what’s next?” I asked Ripp

“Take this one” he said

It was the case containing all of Dink Cook’s basses and some of Rich Eckhardt axes. By now rain had stated to fall and more hands had been assigned to help us. We finished loading what was left and some
of the crew left the stage.

I went back to see if we had missed anything.

“Clear the stage! clear the stage!” yelled Ray from the other side.

I found RIPP… “Time to go man, is there anything else?” I asked

“Take this” he said as he handed me a pack of rain gear.

We headed back to the truck. I looked back and noticed that almost no one was left from our crew. Ray was still there and looked back at me as I waited for a thumbs up. There it was, the all
clear…and then the hail storm hit.

I turned to to RIPP “Man that was close”

“Sure was” he smiled calmly

“You staying here?” I asked

“I dunno” he said

“That wall weighs a lot” I said pointing to the video wall that stood directly before us.

I remembered having a discussion earlier in the week with Snappy, something about that wall weighing somewhere between 12-13,000 pounds.

Heavy hail started to drop as the winds picked up. A piece of fencing blew out near the stage taking half a dozen X-frames and decks (weighing over 1000 lbs) with it

“I’ve gotta get outta here!” I yelled to RIPP

I jumped down from the truck and followed two body’s through the hail and rain up the parking lot.

We jumped into the first open door we saw. A hand reached out to greet me. I shook it turned away and did a double head turn back.

“Hello Tom…” I said after realizing who I was standing next to.
It was the one and only Tom Cochrane, I couldn’t believe it. Someone turned to to me , it was his monitor tech, Luke Westlake once again.

“What you guys did out there was impressive, thanks!” he said

“Anytime, everyone out there is an ‘A’ guy” I said

Then Tony Crea who was tour managing that day introduced himself and thanked me.

I looked out the door again at the mounting hail storm “That’s nasty!” I yelled before closing the door.
I turned around to find that the world had stopped turning. In spite of the insanity that was happening around us, and the chance that if could get worse at any moment, the band and crew stopped to recognize someone’s birthday. They were celebrating Kenny Greer’s, founding member of Canadian rock band Red Rider, 60th birthday,

I remember thinking “If that sky turns green and a tornado hits, at least I’m in good company.”

Although Cochrane’s set would eventually be cancelled, everyone knew what the crew from Snap Hoek had done that day. We undoubtedly saved a lot of valuable equipment, the show and possibly lives.

The storm subsided and the crew walked through a wet parking lot and returned to the stage 25mins later. Another less intense but longer downpour with thunder and lightening followed. The Road Hammers, Tom Cochrane and Paul Brandt all got cancelled but for Toby Keith we were told, ‘the show must go on’.

We soldiered on in our wet clothes cleaning the stage through the late afternoon with little fuel left in our bodies. The stage power was stepped down and everything was on stand by, but we put things in place and hoped for the best.


In the field the speaker clusters were flown again, the main PA was raised, a new screen was readied in the centre and Toby Keith’s main riser was equipped with all the backline.

We rolled the guitars off the truck raised the weather walls and prepped for show time.

Keith’s stage crew we’re thankful for our efforts:

“Here take these” said one of his tour managers, as he handed me two fresh guitar picks from the tour, a small token of appreciation for our efforts.

Toby Keith arrived on time at 9:30pm and played to an enthusiastic, slightly soaked crowd, some of which had remained in the field all afternoon with high anticipation.

Keith played a full 22 song show covering hits from his 1993 self titled debut to his latest effort Drinks After Work. Some of the highlights included Gordon’s Lightfoot’s Sundown (in which Lightfoot joined him on stage for a brief moment) and 2011’s Red Cup Solo in which our crew brought two giant red cups onto the stage.


The night ended with a speech about his time in Afghanistan, where Keith said he could always find a cold beer in a welcoming Canadian military barracks, followed by American Soldier and The Angry American.



No one in the crowd knew what had happened behind the scenes that day. If someone had been 5 minutes late making the call, if Snappy hadn’t prepped the audio crew to lower the clusters in the field, if one person had slipped, tripped or fell in the rain or if we hadn’t saved Toby Keith’s guitars, it could have been all over.

I remember thinking that someone was looking over us and that this truly was a miracle.

Someone asked me earlier in the week, “What is it that you guys do?”

“You know when a drum kit or a prop disappears from the stage during a show?” I said


“Well that’s us. If you see us, that means we messed up. We are the shadows the behind the scenes.”

Photos and Words: Darrell J Shelley

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