Hemphill Brothers Coach Company

by Kevin M. Mitchell
in Company 411
Hemphill Brothers Coach bus interior photo by Lauren M. Mitchell
Hemphill Brothers Coach bus interior photo by Lauren M. Mitchell

Joey Hemphill Discusses the Company’s History and State of the Tour Bus Today

The young brothers, Joey and Trent, did a double take when they opened the check from Van Halen’s management. Eyes were squinted, heads were scratched. The check was less than they were expecting.

It was the early 1980s, and the new Hemphill Brothers Coach company had snagged the red-hot rock band as a client. Brothers Joey and Trent had negotiated verbally that on the weeks when the band was taking scheduled breaks, Hemphills were to be paid 2/3rds of the weekly cost of the lease. The wording on the contract was supposed to be “1/3 off” the weekly rate. Alas an “f” went missing, and that became “1/3 of.” “When the break occurred and we got our check, we called management and told them we were shorted, and they responded, ‘Go back and read the contract that you drew up and signed.’ This was a hard lesson for two very young bus company owners. That one letter being left off a single word, that typo, costs us greatly in a period when we needed it most as we only had two buses in our fleet,” Joey says.

Joey and Trent Hemphill

Suffice to say the company survived (and Van Halen is still a client). Today, the company is thriving. On any given day, they have 100 buses with new ones being fitted to a stars’ needs. The shop is so busy there are plans to build four more garage bays, and to add to their already 200-plus employees. Yet it’s still a personal business, and Joey Hemphill is proud to show the place off to visitors. The walls of their offices are filled with clients who they made comfortable on the road, and thanked them for such in autographed pictures. The photos span music genres and even include the surprises — at one point, Joey points to one from Kurt Cobain reminding us that Cobain rarely signed autographs for anybody. But there he is, right there with Justin Timberlake, Lady Gaga, Taylor Swift, Randy Travis, Babyface, Beyoncé, and so on and so on.

The Singing Hemphills' first bus, a 1962 Flex High Rise. Photo courtesy of Hemphill Brothers

The Singing Hemphills

The Hemphill’s mother, LaBreeska, grew up singing in her family’s group, The Happy Goodman Family. As that group traveled and performed, they came across a young minister named Joel Hemphill, who started writing songs for the group, providing several hits. Joel and LaBreeska would marry, start their own family, and hit the road with their own group, “The Singing Hemphills.” “The band eventually had nine people, and we made 30 albums,” Joey says. “We spent 20 years on the road, during which time we got familiar with buses.” Speaking of buses, in the 1970s, Joel got into the sideline business of renting out the bus when they weren’t using it, and invested in another one to do the same. About a decade later, when Joey was 21 and Trent was 20, they talked their dad into selling them the two buses. “Dad co-signed on a $50,000 note and lent us $500.”

“We had to teach ourselves how to fix up interiors, and teach ourselves a lot of other things,” Joey admits. “But since we grew up on the road, we knew what people wanted.” An early big break was providing the bus for Michael Bolton, and that led to a lot of acts, including one of their biggest. It 1982 they got a call from Van Halen when they were in Nashville. Someone from their management team came down to look at the bus and booked it. As an example of how “business” was done back then, he adds that the brothers were told to come down to the concert hall and collect their pay. There, a guy in a suit met them. “His briefcase was chained to his wrist, and he opens it up and there’s all this cash. He grabs a little stack and hands it to us. Trent and I look at each and said, ‘we’re on the wrong side of this business!’”

Exterior of Bus in Progress

Not Just Rock Stars

To walk through the Hemphill complex is to appreciate that they do a lot more than touring music acts. They also do a lot of theater — traveling Broadway shows are clients. And they have been known to create buses for A-list actors (Jack Nicholson) and celebrities (Oprah). Increasingly, book signing tours are part of their market, and authors from Joan Collins to Sarah Palin have asked for specially designed painted or wrapped bus promoting their book. They’ve also worked with corporate clients like Microsoft.

Politicians have long been beating a path to the Hemphills for signature buses. “These politicians can go to these smaller cities in rural America and our buses take the place of the old train whistle stop tours.” In the conference room, there is a display of toy bus replicas of previous work for the likes of John Kasich, John McCain (remember the Straight Talk Express?), and the late Fred Thompson (ah yes he ran too). Proudly, Joey takes out one for George W. Bush, which is signed. It’s a testimonial to the long relationship they had as Hemphill supplied his coaches going back to when he was running for governor of Texas. Speaking of 43, during Hemphill’s work with the President, the brothers became friends with one of his Secret Service agents, Mark Thompson. Thompson would retire a few years later and go to work for the brothers. Today he is Hemphill’s New Conversion Foreman and oversees all new builds.

And about those builds: In every bus, there are six miles of wire to handle all the electronics you can imagine, and even some you can’t. (The new bus for Tim McGraw and Faith Hill’s Soul2Soul tour has a bathroom mirror that’s also a TV). But part of the Hemphill challenge is not just keeping up with technology but also home decorating trends. When an artist comes to the Hemphill complex, one of the first stops is a room filled with carpet and flooring samples, and catalogs of fixtures that would accent any modern upscale home.

Every aspect of creating their buses happens on the premises, from outfitting them with generators to power an outside TV and barbeque to fitting in Apple TV units. There are paint rooms and experienced hands fitting couches in, just so. Their buses are always Prevost, as “they are the leading shell provider in our industry and their buses have an incredible ride.” They even provide drivers, which is no easy task. “We’re dealing directly with the Department of Transportation on all related issues, so a bus from us is ready to go in every sense of the word.”

They also do special projects, including a bus that won’t bus. One of the 18 new hotels being built in Nashville right now is the high-end boutique, The Bobby. Those owners had a vision of an old tour bus being on top of their hotel, and they came to Hemphill only after everyone said what they wanted was impossible to do (which are fightin’ words to the Hemphills). The hotel owners had bought a 1956 bus and wanted it expanded, restored, and be part of their rooftop pool. The first couple of seats will be restored, and then the back will lead into the pool and a pool bar. A side will be able to lift and open. The brothers went out and bought two more ‘56 buses to use as parts, seamlessly doubled the width of it, and it’ll be either dropped on the roof by helicopter or lifted by a crane when the hotel opens in 2018. “We’ll be part of the Nashville skyline,” Joey says.

Bus Interior in progress. More than six miles of wires goes into the typical Hemphill bus.

Ovens, Showers, and Pianos

What is most fun to talk to the Hemphills about are the special requests. They put a Jenn-Air Oven, a complete range, on a bus for Barbara Mandrell. Aerosmith’s Steven Tyler wanted an outdoor shower, so they built something that fits in the bay of the bus and can be taken out and set up in 15 minutes for him. “Harry Connick Jr. asked for a Steinway piano in his bus, and we said, ‘Now, you mean a [digital] keyboard,’ and he said, ‘No, a real piano,’” Joey says. “The next day FedEx shows up with an Upright Steinway and we put it on his bus. At some point during his tour, I got a call from the driver, saying he enjoyed driving down the road listening to Harry play!”

How long does it take when an artist is involved with the design? Joey smiles and says, “Well, that depends.” Some are very hands on … and some are very hands on. As accommodating the client completely, the process can take six weeks to three months.

And while he’ll tell you that “we didn’t build a company on saying ‘no,’” there are a few instances of requests that just aren’t practical or safe. But if an artist is at the point where he or she can get a made-to-order bus, a visit to the Hemphill facility is usually called for — eventually followed by another autographed picture saying “Thanks.”

Master Bathroom

For more information, visit www.hemphillbrothers.com