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Randy “Baja” Fletcher

PLSN Staff • Features • October 19, 2010

Parnelli Lifetime Achievement Award Winner "Wore Many Hats" for ZZ Top, Waylon Jennings, Randy Travis and Brooks & Dunn

Kix Brooks and Ronnie Dunn issued a joint statement upon hearing the news: "We can't imagine what we did to be blessed with the likes of Randy ["Baja"] Fletcher. We hate to think about what our career might have been like without him, as so many have been won and lost on the road. The importance of a trail boss like Baja is impossible to put into words. Not a show goes by that someone doesn't talk about the quality of our crew, and it all filters down from him."

The news: Randy "Baja" Fletcher is receiving the live event industry's highest honor, the Parnelli Lifetime Achievement Award, at the 10th annual Parnelli Awards, to be held at the Rio in Las Vegas on October 22. Fletcher's remarkable career started as a humble roadie and rose through the ranks of acts like ZZ Top, Waylon Jennings, Randy Travis, and finally "trail boss" for Brooks & Dunn.

 

"There wasn't a book on how to do this," Fletcher reflects. "I've never been into titles and have always referred to myself as the messenger boy. My vocabulary isn't big, but my heart is, and so is my passion. I try to do right, and always take a humanitarian approach."

 

He's a man who is used to "wearing a lot of hats" on the job, and with a bit of pride, he will inform you that in all his years he's never had a production assistant. "I never had that luxury, though there were times I wish I did," he chuckles. "You just have to suck it up, and when something goes wrong, you have no one to blame but yourself."

 

Fletcher called receiving the award "another great landmark in this great life we live," adding: "I really don't understand all the wonderful things that have come into my life." Others around him do: His tenacity, people skills and sense of humor have made him one of the live event industry's most revered and respected production managers working today.

 

The Universal Language

 

Fletcher's life nearly ended the moment it began. Born in 1948 in the southwestern hills of Virginia, he came out of the womb blue, unable to breathe. When the doctor had given up on him, a nurse put a little piece of gauze over his mouth, blew breath into the little baby, and smacked him. A yowl, then a fascinating life, followed.

 

His Dad, Paul, was a coal miner, who eventually moved his wife Inez, daughters Linda and Lucy and little boy Randy to Portsmouth, Va. There he worked in a naval shipyard. Fletcher grew up with an early obsession with baseball, and lofty dreams of going pro consumed his youth – right up until the moment his father brought home the family's first record console. "I traded all my baseball cards for money to buy albums," Fletcher recalls. "I realized then that music is the universal language."

 

He spent his teen years at the area beaches, hanging ten with the Safaris' "Wipe Out" as his soundtrack. One of his best friends, Bob Everett, was a roadie for Bill Deal and the Rhondels, who had combined blue-eyed soul, beach music and horn rock to chart a few hits. The band was a regional favorite, and Everett brought Fletcher on to help. Both were just 17 years old.

 

"We'd show up on a Friday outside some college with a small trailer of gear, set it up and play a fraternity party," he says. "Then we'd rush over that night to open for the Four Tops, Temptations, or the Rascals, then tear it all down and go play the basement of some other fraternity party."

 

The money he was getting for the work dwarfed the $20 a week he was making working at Sears & Roebuck. "I was thinking, I load drums and keyboards and I'm going to get $10 per show, at least $30 a weekend? If this is showbiz, I'm here!" he laughs.

 

In May of 1969, Fletcher was drafted. "I didn't understand [the war]. I felt like running away, but my dad was a true veteran, and he would have beat my butt if I had." As he readied himself for Vietnam after completing basic training, a clerical error led to a switch from "infantry" to "supply," saving him from combat. To this day he's grateful for his good fortune.

 

Once out, he went right back "to the beach and the band! You're supposed to know what you want to do," Fletcher adds, "but I was still in my 20s. I was a goofball. I was into having fun."

 

Fate would intervene when the manager of the Rhondels hooked him up to help out with a big outdoor concert. It featured the likes of hard rock super group Cactus and Blue Oyster Cult. Among the mix was a "little band from Texas," ZZ Top. Fletcher stage-managed the event, and impressed ZZ Top's crew chief so much that a job offer followed.

 

"I got a plane ticket to go to Houston to start up with the band in 1974 and was overwhelmed by how great the band was," he says. His first date with them in Raleigh, N.C., was filled with pandemonium and excitement, and Fletcher knew he was on to something.

 

"I was out with them for six months, and sometimes the audience was so loud you couldn't hear the P.A." The likes of Buford Jones and Morris Lyda were on that first tour too. Fletcher insists that he was "just a roadie" who "pushed boxes and fetched beer." He was the only non-Texan in the crew, something the others – including Dave Blaney, Dave "Grizz" Rowe and J. W. Williams, took full advantage of. Hijinks ensued. Once, they took advantage of Fletcher's inexperience with jalapeños and presented one to him as a pickle. Suffice it to say, he quickly figured out the difference.

 

In 1975, they went out and did another 75 shows. Then, in 1976, they went out with an even bigger tour, one "dedicated to taking Texas to the people. Showco did sound and lights for us and it was just off the charts," he says of the tour. "We had animals," he adds – they traveled a longhorn steer, a 2,000-pound black buffalo and, presumably for good luck, a pair of buzzards.

 

"At the time it was the world's largest rock ‘n' roll show," Fletcher adds. The stage was in the shape of Texas, with the drum riser being the state's panhandle, and the tip boasting a Plexiglas container in the shape of a diamond that held live rattlesnakes. "We had cactus and palms as part of the scenic design, and professional rodeo clown Ralph Fisher as part of the show." It was one of the first tours to use rigging motors.

 

One of the "hats" he wore for that show included helping round up the four-footed "talent" when they made a dash for freedom. Oh, and providing the buzzards with rum. By this time, Fletcher was calling all the shots, from load in to load out, overseeing production, and even booking hotel rooms for the crew. "I was doing three or four jobs."

 

Problems? No, Just Situations

 

In 1977, he parted with the ZZ Top organization and went back to Houston. Next, he had another near-death experience: a day job. He worked at a music instrument store, and while instruments were cool, "it reminded me of working at Sears." The phone rang, and he was asked to help with lights for none other than George Clinton's P-Funk. Fletcher was on the set for the infamous video that involved landing the "mother ship" in Times Square. With Joe Branam as the rigger, two cranes lowered the ship in a narrow time frame from midnight to sunrise, and just as the once-in-a-lifetime shot was being filmed, some pedestrian walked out of the fog and into the middle of the shot, ruining it. The tour was similarly crazy.

 

"That lasted about a month, and I thought I might want to try the music store again!" he laughs. But he didn't have to. A call came for a bit on Kiss' lighting crew, including being there when they did a show the night Elvis died (dedicating "Rock and Roll All Nite" to the King), and the recording of KISS' Alive II album. "Once they ran out of confetti to shoot into the audience, so a crew member said why don't we just shoot popcorn?" Then a genius put in buttered popcorn. "It was a mess!"

 

When asked how he got out of this and many other problems, Fletcher is quick to correct: "We don't do problems, we do situations."

 

Next, he would run Waylon Jenning's shows from 1978 until 1987. Jennings's wife, Jessi Colter, has fond memories of those days. "We called him ‘happy feet' for the way he would come dancing into the bus to tell Waylon everything was set up," she laughs. "But he's a man of a lot of passion and energy, and Waylon just adored him. Baja never complained, and even after all these years, I still miss him."

 

But it was a wild ride. "There were a lot of drugs going on," Fletcher states, bluntly. "[Jennings] was doing a half ounce of cocaine a day, every day for five years before he got sober. It was off the charts." When a crew member would point out he hadn't slept in five or six days, Jennings rallying cry was, "We'll sleep when we die!"

 

Luckily, Jennings turned his life around. "One day he said he was going to go away and beat that monster, and he went and cleaned himself up in a month. I cannot imagine what he went through to do that." A sobriety party was thrown for him at Johnny and June Cash's house, and many turned out for it. Fletcher wrote a poem for Jennings and read it, bringing down the house. Part of it went:

 

 

 

Those were the days and not long ago,

You used to run around with all the blow

The days were short but the nights were long,

But time after time you would write a good song

We all tried to stay close to your heels,

But the closer we got the higher the bills.

 

 

 

"People couldn't believe it because [Fletcher] had never done anything like that," laughs Colter. "He always got a laugh, and he sure did that night."

 

"Nothing else I've ever done will top my years with Waylon," Fletcher says, audibly choked up. "Not only was he a great singer, but a great boss. At times he was my father, at times he was my brother, and all the time my best friend."

 

An Expandable Hat Rack

 

Next, concert promoter/agent Al Schultz called and mentioned a "new kid" named Randy Travis needed a production manager. It was 1988, and Travis was already a success. Fletcher credits him for making country music cool to teenagers again. "There were times when we didn't have enough P.A. because the girls were screaming so much," he says. Lighting duties often fell to Fletcher in addition to getting the show from point A to point B, as they had most of his career, though now he also got to bring in more lights and even some video enhancement, one of the first in the country.

 

That ride lasted five years, until Travis abruptly retired from music, telling his crew that while he loved the one hour a night he was on stage playing, the other 23 hours of the day were burning him out. But many good things happened to Fletcher on that run. He met his future wife Marti at one of the shows, who he would have two daughters with, Lucinda and Natalie.

 

Fletcher was in Las Vegas when word came that he was unemployed, but he wasn't worried. Right away, he had two offers on the table.

 

Live event producer Eric Shinault asked Fletcher if he'd be interested in working for the relatively new act Brooks & Dunn. Meanwhile, Schultz also called with a job to work for Billy Ray Cyrus, who was huge at the moment with "Achy Breaky Heart." The latter offered good money and was asking him to wear just one "hat," while with Brooks & Dunn wanted more.

 

"Ronnie [Dunn] asked, ‘We hear you can do this, do that – how many hats can you wear?' and I was like, ‘What kinda hat rack are we talkin' about here?'" Fletcher laughs. "But they had the biggest vision right then. Kix [Brooks] said to me, ‘Baja, we're not a couple of spring chickens, and the way we want to do business is like this: It has to be fun or it's not going to work for us.'"

 

Fletcher was intrigued enough to join an act that was going to put such a large emphasis on production. "It was hard for country [music acts] to spend a lot of money on production, so while it was an expensive game to play, they got that they should play it."

 

Fletcher aptly describes the shows as "Spinal Tap meets Country." "They have been one of the true innovators. The inflatables, the gags … we laughed ourselves silly as they experimented with things to put in the show." Fletcher's hat rack was sizable: He handled production and lighting, advanced the show, and even handled the catering. "The first year almost burned me out! On the road, there was hardly any rest, and then I'd get home and advance the next shows."

 

And what shows they were. Reflecting back in the midst of Brooks & Dunn's last tour, aptly titled The Last Rodeo, Fletcher states, "These two are the total package, one of the greatest acts of all time. They have real vision. Some people are scared to experiment. Not these guys. And if something didn't work, they'd just laugh it off. We had an inflatable big steer head crash down on the drummer while filming an Academy of Country Music awards show, and they laughed right along with (host Jeff) Foxworthy when he made fun of us for it."

 

Fletcher saw each tour ratchet up. For the 2000 Tailgate tour, a pickup truck turned into a fireball and appeared to crash into a mountain. For the next one, the Neon Circus & Wild West Show (2001-2004), set designer Mike Swinford had the audience gasping when two large inflatable cowgirls dominated the set. Confetti and streamers were used heavily in that tour as well. "We had things going on before the band took the stage. Street entertainers, mechanical bulls – all kinds of goofy things. People were entertained from the moment they walked through the gate."

 

While tours grew to needing 15 buses and a dozen trucks, Fletcher handled the complexity with aplomb, and the practical jokes the crew played on each other kept him smiling.

 

Despite the pressure, the crew's reputation as being the best, most professional, easy-to-work-with group in the business continued to grow. This was not an accident, as Fletcher was determined to leave the drama and hissy fits to others. "I tell all the guys in the crew that we are in a fun business, but we need to think always about who we represent. I deal with more people in any given day, but at the end of the day, that arena security guy isn't going to remember Baja, he'll remember Brooks & Dunn. I do not ever want to hear, ‘Those [jerks] Brooks & Dunn….'" His technique? "Kill them with kindness, always let the other guy think it was his idea, and take the blame yourself while giving the credit to others."

 

In August 2009, word came that Brooks & Dunn were going to part. "I knew someday they would call it quits," Fletcher says. "They have given 20 years to the industry as the greatest duo ever."

 

A True Gentleman

 

Fletcher's passion for his work is equal only to his humility. "I'm a simple person, and everything I do I owe to God. He's given me this life to live, and I've been lucky. I haven't looked for a job since I started. How lucky is that?

 

"I think back to when I was also a lighting director, and I remember looking around before I called house lights to begin a show…I'd see a full house, all the different men and women, and think what a wonderful business I'm in."

 

Understandably, he's not the least bit worried about what comes next in his career, and is just grateful that the Last Rodeo tour has gone as well as it has. "I'm tickled that everybody is riding this out with class."

 

"I've worked with a lot of production managers in rock and country, and I've never seen a gentleman with a better attitude," says Wade "Tenn-a-c" Slatton, another longtime member of the Brooks & Dunn tour. "There's no yelling and screaming with him. He gets the job done by being the nicest guy in the world.

 

"But the funny thing is, he does get mad – I've seen it!" he adds, laughing. "When the gorilla comes out, watch out!"

 

"One would think that after a lifetime of doing so much, being in both dives and amazing places, working with so many up-and-comers, legends, and everyone in between, that a man who has crammed 10 lifetimes into one half of one, might be jaded," says Josepha Cheong, Brooks & Dunn's tour photographer. "Quite the opposite. Every day, Baja is as enthusiastic and as infectiously and furiously energetic about his work and the people around him as I imagine him to have been 40-plus years ago when he started.

 

"What impresses me most is the genuine kindness in his manner, whether with newbies in the crew or with the numerous VIPs that come to the shows. That is the hallmark of not just a true professional, but also a genuinely goodhearted person."

 

Brooks & Dunn: "Baja not only loves what he does, and is the absolute best, but he makes us all want to rise to his level of excellence …we'll never make it, but we'll keep tryin.'"

 

"I had the good fortune to work with Baja for five years on the road," says Randy Travis. "And nobody I can think of deserves the Parnelli Lifetime Achievement Award any more than Randy ‘Baja' Fletcher."

 

Fletcher will receive the Parnelli Lifetime Achievement Award on October 22, 2010, at the Rio in Las Vegas.

 

 

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