A local bluegrass band being asked to play for the President of the United States…what are the odds? That’s what we thought until a dear friend with a connection to the Obama Campaign called to ask if Gallatin Canyon could warm up the crowd of 7,500 that would assemble at the rally for President Obama last Wednesday. Needless to say, we jumped at such a rare opportunity and honor. After a few background checks and a Tuesday night rehearsal, we were ready for our sound-check at the Pavilion, early Wednesday morning. The lineup for the day would be Andy Thacker, Landon Fishburne, Ben Hernandez, Stan Marshall and Joe Simpson.
We arrived and were escorted backstage by Secret Service while the crews put the finishing touches on the elaborate stage where the President would later deliver his speech. We had to vacate the premises by 10 am sharp so that the agents could secure the area before opening the venue to the general public. This left us with just a few hours to gather ourselves before our performance.
Back at the Pavilion, we were again escorted backstage by Secret Service where we tuned our instruments and befriended an agent who had served the last three Presidents. With a friendly smile he asked if we knew any Jack White songs. Moments later, we took the stage, playing for a solid hour and listening to the loud roars of anticipation from 7,500 eager folks awaiting the President’s arrival. At one point, we jokingly asked the crowd if they had heard a rumor that the President was going to be delivering a speech. That, of course, was met with a resounding burst of cheers, the likes of which none of us have ever heard.
It was our job to entertain and warm up the crowd even in the unbearably hot and humid weather. Hot enough that we actually had to help direct paramedics to a person in the crowd who had collapsed! That was a scary moment, for sure. We played to cheers and even a few friendly boos near the end of our set when we said that the Campaign needed us to do “a few more tunes.” Incidentally, the boos quickly became cheers again once the Campaign changed it to “one more song.” It was truly the honor of a lifetime to be on that stage, helping ready our hometown friends for President Obama’s electrifying speech.
After we played, the campaign arranged for us to be seated on stage. There, our mandolin player, Andy Thacker, was, for the second time in two years, the first person to shake the President’s hand as he walked onto the Pavilion stage to a deafening eruption of applause.
After the rally, we craved air conditioning and hydration! So we walked down the Mall to Positively 4th Street, where we have a standing gig every Thursday night. As we began to notice some commotion out on the Mall, our contact throughout the day from the Campaign’s advance team made his way into the bar. That’s when we learned that the President was on his way. Once again, we found ourselves in precisely the right place at the right time.
While the President made a stop in the Campaign office next door, Secret Service arranged to get us to the front of the rope line outside where he was to make his way back to the motorcade. To our surprise, one of the agents stopped the President, introduced him to us, told him we were his warm up band and arranged for a photo op. Obama’s exact words were, “How come I haven’t gotten a photo with the band yet?”
The President then made his way down the rope line and even got an unexpected surprise greeting from hometown Academy Award winner, Sissy Spacek, who had been dining at 4th Street. This meeting left a number of folks in the crowd to wonder exactly which one of them was more star-struck!
It was a day full of exciting and memorable moments. And, for a small town bluegrass band, it was the experience of a lifetime. Thank you, Mr. President and thank you to our hometown friends in Charlottesville. It’s a day Gallatin Canyon will never forget. —Ben Hernandez and Landon Fishburne