The standing joke among musicians is that a musician is somebody who puts $5,000 worth of equipment in a $500 vehicle and drives 100 miles to make $50. (The numbers vary.)
Bill Hudson and Al Coffey have driven thousands of miles since 2005 to make nothing. Except, they make people happy.
Hudson and Coffey are the stars, if that’s the right word, of the Feel Good Tour, which is kind of a misnomer, because it’s not really a tour like, let’s say, David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust Tour. Rather, it’s a two-man effort that since 2005 has collected and donated hundreds of musical instruments to victims of natural disasters and others in need.
The thing about the $500 vehicle is pretty close, though. Hudson said he wasn’t sure of the make and year of his van, but thought it was a 2001 Plymouth.
Soon after Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans in August 2005, Hudson was talking on the phone to his friend Guy Nouri, a software developer.
“And I said, ‘Wouldn’t it be a neat idea to go down there and play live music out in the field, make people feel good?'” Hudson recalled. “He said, ‘What’s your bank account? I want to transfer funds.'” Nouri coined the term “Feel Good Tour.”
Hudson then approached fellow musician Al Coffey. “And I said, ‘Al, you want to go to New Orleans?’ He said, ‘Great. Got a gig?’ I go, ‘No.’ He said, ‘Well, do you know anybody?’ I go, ‘No. Played on the street there years ago.’ And he said, ‘What are you going to do?’ And I told him, and he said, ‘Let’s go.'”
Hudson and Coffey rented a car and started driving with no plan except to go toward New Orleans. On that first trip, they entertained people at feeding centers, careful not to hinder distribution of water, shelter and food.
On their second or third trip, they met the fire chief of Slidell, Louisiana, who offered to let them stay in the firehouse, eat, take showers, and use the internet. That became their base of operations.
While they were staying at the firehouse, Hudson said, a fireman’s wife, who was a teacher, invited them to play at her school. The school’s music teacher asked if they could bring instruments on their next trip. That was the beginning of the instrument donation program.
Hudson and Coffey went on to make 13 trips to Louisiana. As the years passed, the geographic scope expanded with instruments being donated from as far as Alaska and delivered as far as Idaho.
Bill Hudson, 70, said he lives in Boones Mill, in “a little cabin in the middle of nowhere.” He was born in the Bronx and said he lived briefly in a Capuchin monastery. “In the Midwest in 1967, in a monastery, I met a hippie from Haight-Ashbury that told me about Jack Kerouac.” He called it “a cosmic knock on the head.”
His true calling was singing folk music. Among his influences are Pete Seeger, whom he personally knew, and Woody Guthrie.
“Bill is the quintessential old-school folkie who loves to write and perform,” said Bob Schmucker, president of Roanoke’s Third Street Coffeehouse.
Al Coffey, 72, lives in Northwest Roanoke and is known locally as The Swiss Army Musician. “That sums up Al perfectly as he plays about a dozen instruments and plays them all well,” Schmucker said.
Hudson and Coffey distribute instruments because they love music, and “they want every kid to know the joy and wonder of creating music the way they do and be able to see how music connects people and lifts them past whatever hardships or challenges they face in life,” Schmucker said.
Hudson said he tours in New York and New Jersey. “No matter where I am in the country, I open my mouth in front of the microphone. We have a pretty good-sized network and a reputation after this many years. So people, once they hear about it, they’re very spontaneous. And we have a PayPal account and they make donations.” In a typical year they take in maybe $500 in cash donations, Hudson said, in addition to varying numbers of new and used instruments.
One source of instruments is Hungry for Music, a Washington, D.C., nonprofit run by Jeff Campbell. “Hungry For Music has provided hundreds of instruments in support of Bill and Al’s Feel Good Tour over the years,” Campbell said.
The list of instruments given away includes “accordions, lap steels, guitars, acoustic, electric, amps, anything you could think of, including the Elvis lunchbox guitar,” Hudson said. The Elvis item is a functional lunchbox that is also a toy guitar. A 5-year-old received it.
The pandemic slowed down, but did not stop, the Feel Good Tour. As dawn was breaking on March 16, Hudson and Coffey met at Rent-A-Space in Roanoke County, where they store instruments. They loaded up a rented van with keyboards, amps and guitars and drove to Richmond, Kentucky, where they met Michael Johnathan, a folk musician and radio host.
“After the tornadoes hit western Kentucky [on Dec. 10, 2021] I decided to do a national instrument drive to bring music back into the affected areas,” Johnathan said. “A tornado stayed on the ground for 200 miles and abolished everything in its path. I worked with music stores from Nashville to Washington, D.C., to collect instruments and Bill is a friend of mine and offered to bring about 40 instruments from Virginia to support the project.”
“Last Christmas,” Coffey said, “when we had our Christmas program, we came up with a lot more people donating instruments than picking them up,” in part due to the pandemic. “And we figured, well, if we weren’t able to give them out at Christmas, a lot of them could go to Kentucky.”
While Feel Good instruments have gone all over the country, Hudson and Coffey also donate locally. One year they supplied instruments to kids at Preston Park Recreation Center in Roanoke.
“There was a kid here locally at Preston Park, I guess about a third-grader, who was, of all things, into jazz,” Coffey said. “A third-grader listening to Miles Davis, so OK, that’s cool. And he wanted a trumpet and we managed to get one for him and his eyes lit up like flash bulbs going off.”
Another feel-good story comes from Louisiana.
“One time we had taken a batch of instruments to one of the junior highs there,” Coffey said. “And we went back to this again, and all the kids that had received stuff, they wanted to play for us, where we normally went in and played some music for them. And we saw the look on their faces.”
Until recently, Feel Good had official status as a project of United Peace Relief, a 501(c)(3) headquartered in California. “Over the years we have assisted with approximately $4,000 to $5,000 in reimbursing expenses and helping with storage expenses” for Feel Good, said Carol Stachurski, United Peace Relief treasurer.
United Peace Relief closed recently due to factors including changes in emergency management and new efficient disaster nonprofits, she said. “Donations have all been distributed with a final support to The Feel Good Tour so they could respond with instruments to Kentucky.”
So, once again, Hudson and Coffey are just two musicians trying to help out where they can. Putting thousands of dollars’ worth of equipment in a van. Driving thousands of miles. Making people happy.
People wishing to support the Feel Good Tour with donations or instruments can contact Hudson at firstname.lastname@example.org. More information is at www.thefeelgoodtour.org.