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How a Full-time RVing Musician Finds Harmony on the Open Road

Published on March 27th, 2024 by Terri Nighswonger

What’s it like to be a full-time RVing musician today? It is fun? A tough way to make money? RV Living author and full-time RVer Terri Nighswonger is married to one, and in the following interview with her husband Todd, the duo share what it’s like to play music to audiences around the country.

When you are a full-time RVing musician, you combine a lot of hard work, fun, and the freedom to do the thing you love. If you combine that with the freedom to travel on the open road and inspire others, well, it’s not a perfect life but it is one with a lot of great adventures.

Todd Nighswonger (Image: Terri Nighswonger)
Todd Nighswonger (Image: Terri Nighswonger)

When we began our full-time RV life in 2019, we could not have anticipated where our journey would take us. We were a little nervous to jump out on the road, but I don’t think we would change anything about the last five years. While our state count is probably a little smaller than some, we have work camped in Tennessee, Missouri, Texas, Colorado, Arizona, Maine, and California. Phoenix is our winter home now and we work camp and travel in our RV in the summer.

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Todd’s journey began before we left Arkansas where we began to live full time in our RV and where we launched our adventure. He was playing some gigs in Fort Smith and the area.

I sat down with him to talk about what it’s like to be a full-time RVing musician. I put him under the microscope for half an hour or so. Here’s what followed.

How Did You Get Started Playing Music for RVers and Other People?

For several years I had thought about doing kind of a one-man band. I had a lot of musical background but hadn’t been doing anything like this. I knew a lot of the songs from this music era (60s and 70s) and thought I had the voice where I could pull off being successful. So, I just started picking some songs out and practicing them on my acoustic guitar.

Once I got started, I realized that people liked the music. I was just playing at places such as farmer’s markets where I didn’t have any equipment. I decided I could be successful at this and got a sound system and started adding songs as time went on.

Todd and the Two ‘Tars came from Todd and two gui-‘tars.

The backstory from Terri

Todd comes from a musical background. His father and his sister sing and his mother was a part of a Sweet Adelines group back in the day. He started playing the trumpet in band in junior high school. He also played the French horn, bass guitar in the school’s jazz band, upright bass in a local swing band, bass in several churches we attended, was in a country band, and taught himself the acoustic guitar.

When he first started, he didn’t even want to practice in front of me. Now he is very comfortable in front of an audience and loves doing this and the audience loves his repertoire of songs from the 60s and 70s. It’s fun to sing along to the Eagles, Billy Joel, John Denver, and many more popular artists. His niche is to do as authentic a version of the song as possible.

Was Being a Full-time RVing Musician Something that You Saw in your RV Life?

I started performing music before we even had an RV. Once we had the RV and decided we were going to full-time travel, I thought I would just do this on the side at different places we might go for a season. That worked okay but it can be kind of difficult if you’re only going to be somewhere for three months to book gigs and then you’re not there anymore. It can make it a little tougher.

The backstory from Terri

We have work camped for the last several years and he has incorporated his music into the places we went. Many of them we chose because live music was abundant in the area. He also has had the opportunity to play for many of the resorts/campgrounds where we worked.

Listen and watch Todd on YouTube

What is the Hardest Part of Playing Music as an RV Work Gig?

The hardest part would be if you don’t stay somewhere for a long time. When I first started doing this, once we started traveling, we were in Texas for 8 months. That helped.

But if you’re only going to be somewhere for three or four months it’s hard to take the time to get it set up and to convince someone to let you come in and play, not knowing if you’re ever going to be back again.

The hardest part is getting them to agree to let you play knowing that it is short term.

The backstory from Terri

Todd works hard to book gigs calling to contact the decision maker, call back, leave messages, and send out emails with video samples. He’s so organized and has a spreadsheet to write all the details.

What is the Easiest Part of Being a Traveling RV Musician?

Just playing the music and playing the song. Seeing the enjoyment that the listeners get listening to your music. It’s good to have a rapport with the audience. In some venues, there’s enough background noise that you can’t. It’s easy to have rapport if folks are specifically there to listen to your music. You get less rapport if it’s in a busy, noisy restaurant or bar. Even in that setting I still get a lot of comments later about how much they enjoyed the music when I wasn’t sure they were paying that much attention.

The backstory from Terri

Todd has garnered a following in the Phoenix area since we have been here for three seasons. They love to hear him play and they dance to many of the songs. He even has a resort where he plays on-site, and the residents all pull up in their golf carts to listen—sort of like a drive-in concert.

I’ve been to venues where they shout out suggestions and he often can play whatever song they are looking to hear. If not, he’ll try to add it to his song list next time.

What are Some of the Costs of Playing Music and RVing?

If you’re going to play an instrument it’s the cost of having the instrument. For me, it’s two acoustic guitars. One is a 6-string Taylor that costs about $1,800 and a 12-string Breedlove that costs like $600. Some people may play a keyboard, some people may play an electric guitar. You can have people that just sing but you don’t see that very often. Most often you see singers who play acoustic guitar.

The cost for the sound system which I started with was about $1,000 for a tower speaker system and a mixer. I’ve since upgraded to a second powered amp and a bigger mixer. Even with all that together it’s still only a couple of thousand dollars. My entire equipment is about $5,000 which I’ve invested over the years.

I’ve been doing this for more than 5 years. My initial start-up cost was probably around $3,000.

The backstory from Terri

I do remember being hesitant for him to pay $1,800 for a guitar. These days he adds items to his setup when he needs them. He discusses them with me, but he gets paid well for his work and I can’t complain if he needs something to make his work better. We are still discussing the “need” for a better, newer, more expensive, top-of-the-line guitar.

How Much Time Do You Put Into Practicing Your Craft?

I started out learning about 40 songs and now I’m up to maybe 180 songs. Once I’ve learned a song, I don’t practice it anymore unless I need to go back and fix something because I get a lot of practice playing the songs. I will notice that if I play a song that I haven’t played in a long time I might be a little rusty. In my case, I don’t practice songs a lot other than learning them originally.

The backstory from Terri

When I attend his gigs, I do get asked if he practices a lot or if he serenades me with songs every night. No, and no. He usually practices when I’m out of the house. I think he still has that, “can’t play in front of the wife,” mentality.

How Do You Find Venues?

The hardest part is trying to contact venues, finding the right person, finding out whether it’s best to call them or email them, and getting them to respond. It’s just a lot of prospecting time to find a venue. That’s probably the most time-consuming thing I do. Again, that’s the hard part of going somewhere just for a season.

You must figure out if you need to call these places three months ahead of time, or a year ahead of time. How much advance notice do they need based on how far out they make their schedule and how soon do I need to find a work camping place knowing that I want to try and do music there? That requires us to find a work camping location very early on in the process, so I have plenty of time to prospect for music.

The backstory from Terri

As I said before, Todd is a beast at finding and following up with venues. Once he gets a door open, his talent speaks for itself. He is also the one who finds out about, and books, our work camping gigs. Coordinating it all makes my head spin.

Does Music Make Work Camping Better?

If I’m going somewhere in the summer, I want to try and start in the early winter at the end of the calendar year. A lot of venues book traveling musicians for the whole year in January. You’ve got to work way ahead.

What I have to decide is do I want to go to a certain area and decide what music scene (opportunities) there are or do I look for an area that has lots of music venues and try and find a work camper job there. You have to decide what your approach is going to be. We’ve always wanted to go to places we haven’t been or at least states we haven’t been so I’ve looked at opportunities in a certain state.

For example, we wanted to go to Maine and there was a job near Bar Harbor. There are a lot of places in Bar Harbor to play music. You need to go to a location that has lots of tourists and attractions. You can’t go out in the middle of a forest somewhere. Find tourist locations that have music and then figure out if you’re going to work camp at an RV park there, or just visit and stay for a season.

I think music works out if you’re a work camper because you’re generally going somewhere for several months. That’s the way we’ve done it. I work camp and do music on the side. It’s hard to do enough music to make that my income in the summer. Again, you’re coming in new, you’re only there for a season.

How Do You Carry Your Equipment?

We have a Class C RV that we love! It’s a bit small to live in but we make do in the summer. It is 30-feet-long and has no slides. It is maneuverable in gas stations and parking at trailheads. We can stop and have a sandwich or use the bathroom without leaving.

We started in a travel trailer and sold that to purchase a park model. Now we live in that during the winter in Phoenix. We store the equipment in the over-the-cab section so it’s out of the way. The guitars are the most sensitive pieces of equipment. They have to be climate controlled so they go where we go.

Is a Musical RV Life for You?

There is no doubt, my husband Todd’s music gigs enhance our RV lifestyle. While I don’t attend every booking that he has, I do like to go and hear his new songs. I also give him feedback, and harass him for all the mistakes I hear but no one else would know about.

Do you have musical talent? Want to share that talent with an audience? Then I start playing for your RV neighbors. If they like what they hear then it might be time to try an open mic night. Do it for one or two nights just to see if you like it. Once you get past those hurdles, it might be time to start booking some venues. You can also offer to play for tips.

For us, it has been a slow but fulfilling process. It’s been a joy to see my husband grow in his talent and his ability to engage his audience. I’m blessed beyond measure and can’t wait to see what the future holds. Check out Todd’s website or join him on Facebook.

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