FROM TOMATOES TO JIMMY BUFFETT: LIBBY TRUCKER RECOUNTS LIFE ON THE ROAD

Libby-based trucker Mike Mason has shifted up in the world. He began his career hauling tomatoes in Southern California. Now he’s touring with Jimmy Buffett. Last Thursday he was en route to Orlando, Florida, where Buffett opened for the Eagles on Saturday. “It’s been a pretty easy couple weeks,” Mason said via email. With only a few shows scheduled and one postponed because of rain, he’d been able to enjoy some time off playing golf and having a barbecue with the rest of the touring crew. Mason is a lead driver for Roadshow Services, an entertainment and touring logistics company with corporate offices in Nashville and San Francisco. May 22 will be his 30th anniversary with the company. As lead driver — a position he likens to foreman — of eight trucks, Mason is responsible for hauling the band’s instruments and other gear from one stage to the next, as well as supervising the cargo’s loading and unloading. Mason was born in Libby but raised in Palo Alto, California, where he moved with his parents when he was 4 years old. Growing up, he visited Libby with his family every summer, and his parents returned here after retiring, he said. Mason himself moved back in 1989, though because he spent most of his time on the road at the time he said he “didn’t need a place to live.” “I just moved up here, put a phone and answering machine in my parents’ basement, and called that home,” he said. Mason decided to become a trucker after watching the 1975 film “White Line Fever” in “probably 1978 or 1979,” when he was 17 or 18 years old and living in California. “It wasn’t a bad thing to do,” he said. “You could make decent money.” He followed his friend Jim through truck driving school, and after graduating the two of them bought a 1964 White Freightliner cabover with 1.3 million miles on the odometer. “We drove around Southern California learning to drive (that truck),” Mason said. They owned the truck, but would drive it for a company Jim’s sister owned. Within hours of getting their commercial drivers licenses, the two friends drove to Blythe, California, picked up a load of tomatoes and hit the road. “That’s the only truck I ever owned,” Mason said. Seven months after that first load of tomatoes he went to work for others. Between tomatoes and Buffett, Mason has trucked for, in no particular order and among others, Pearl Jam, Bruce Springsteen, Billy Joel, Neil Young, Guns ‘n’ Roses, the Monsters of Rock tour (Van Halen, the Scorpions and Dokken), Santana, Widespread Panic, Rod Stewart, Prince and Jane’s Addiction. Talking about his truck-driver-for-the-stars career, Mason quickly dispels with a couple all-too-easy assumptions. “The worst part of my job is the driving,” he said. “I’m not a big fan of driving.” He’s also not a fan of concerts. “I’ve never been, I’m just not a guy to go see a show,” he said. Mason was part of a show once, however. During a performance of the Munich Philharmonic in San Francisco, at the conductor’s invitation, he donned a tuxedo belonging to Hans the bass player, took to the stage and, at his cue, played a note on the orchestra’s 300-year-old glockenspiel. Leading up to his big moment, Mason said he was “completely red faced”, “scared to death” and wondering “why did you do this?” So what happened? “I just whang it,” he said. “Then I left.” To ease life on the road, Mason consumes books on tape — he’s listened to 5,000, he estimated — and he carries a set of golf clubs to swing whenever he has time to play a round. What’s kept him on the road all these years, he said, is the camaraderie. “We’re all one big large happy family,” he said. That family is not just the 65 people he regularly tours with in support of Buffett, but also the upward of 200 people at every venue who work in one way or another to stage or support a production. “I have friends I only see when I come into a town,” Mason said. “It’s like a reunion every time you go back.” Mason has a family in Libby, too. He married Jule Mason in 1999, and they have two sons and a daughter. When his kids were growing up, Mason admitted “it was tough” to be on the road for 300 or more days a year. He said he was able to attend only one child’s high school graduation, and got to see only “sporadic things” the kids were doing. Still, he said marriage was the best thing for him. “Talk about the perfect person,” he said of Jule. “I married what a guy on the road needs,” he said in praise of her self-sufficiency. “It’s been good for us,” Jule Mason said. “It’s what we’ve always done our entire relationship. He’s a great guy. We’ve successfully raised three wonderful people and still like each other a lot after 20 years.” Mike Mason said his Libby home is “my security, my sanctuary, my idea of vacation.” Most recently he was home for a couple weeks in March, and he expects to be back from about June 2 to June 17. Mason suggested the time is near when he’ll have more time to stick around Libby. After almost 40 years of wrangling the wheel of a big rig, he said he’s thinking about retiring in November at age 62 so he can spend more time on motorcycling, golfing and other leisure activities. The timing will depend on what Social Security requirements allow him to do, he said. But he isn’t ready to completely let go the long haul. Assuming Buffett starts to slow down as well — he turns 72 in December — Mason said he’d like to stay on tour with him for another year or two. “Jimmy Buffett is my all-time favorite person I’ve worked for,” he said. “Our crew is close-knit.”

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