Any touring band knows that a reliable vehicle can mean the difference between playing or missing their next show. So, while understanding a thing or two about car and van repair may not be as pertinent to a working musician as being able to carry a tune or stay in rhythm, it can certainly come in handy.
Roots/rock musician Erica Blinn, who was sitting in with bands on harmonica in bars around her hometown, Columbus, Ohio, at age 14 and—after adding guitar to the mix—launched her first band two years later, began learning about cars nearly as early in life as she started developing her musical chops. “I’ve always been a person who likes to take things apart and see how they work—it’s part of my personality,” she says. “A lot of people don’t care to learn, but I want to do everything. We always had old vehicles that needed work, too. I couldn’t afford to pay someone to do it, and the fact that my dad had the skills, he was always like ‘we can fix that,’” she says.
Blinn’s DIY mindset and hard-working ethos have served her well as a musician. After playing with a few local bands, she turned her attention to recording and performing under her own name, and after finding regional success with her 2014 debut album, Lovers In The Dust (Curry House Records) she and her bandmates relocated to Nashville in 2015. Blinn says they’re all digging their adopted home base and musician-saturated community, but their recording and touring schedule hasn’t left them with all that much time to explore it. “We’ve lived [in Nashville] for two years, but it still feels like we don’t know that much about it because you live here, but you’re touring.”
In her years on and off the road, she’s encountered a variety of auto-related mishaps from minor issues such as oil leaks to major repairs such as replacing her van’s starter. Once, she and her band even traveled home from a gig in Arkansas with a dead battery and had to ask fellow travelers for a jump every time they stopped for gas (Later I was like, “why didn’t we just buy a battery in Arkansas?” she laughs).
Now that Blinn’s released her second album, Better than Gold—a mix of jagged, earthy blues rock, rootsy ballads, and a hint of new wave a la the Pretenders or J. Geils Band—it seems likely that she’ll be racking up more tour mileage than ever. She Shreds recently caught up with her at home to learn more about how any musician can prepare their vehicle for tour, and get her tips for troubleshooting auto issues from the road. “I’m no expert; everything I’ve done, I’ve only done a couple of times,” she notes. “[but] it’s always cool when you can do something yourself.”
Find out more below. Better Than Gold is available for purchase now.
Before you go:
Give yourself time to prepare
I’ve totally gone to get an oil change two days before tour to hear “you need a new radiator,” and having to call my dad frantically, “Dad, I’m leaving for tour in two days and I need a new radiator.” He said, “Ok, bring it over,” but he wasn’t happy about it. If you’re going to get an oil change before you go out on the road, don’t wait until the day before. Make sure to choose a place that will give you the courtesy check and have them look over everything else for you. They want to sell you a service, of course, but if you go far enough ahead you can have them print you out a list so you can decide “what can I do myself, and what do I need to pay them for?”
Get to know your van
The best thing you can do is to really pay attention. What does your car sound like normally when you’re driving? What does it feel like? Try to memorize that stuff, and that way when something is different you notice… Checking your tire pressure will help with safety, and also with gas mileage and not wearing our your tires. Also, check your coolant level—you can carry a little coolant and oil with you.
You can’t be prepared for every situation, but when we’re on the road, we carry a pretty good-sized jack, some jumper cables, and maybe some random zip-ties, bunjees, and heavy-duty tape (You never know what you can do with that kind of stuff). And a small socket set, a screwdriver, and a tire iron.
Bring a spare
A full size spare is so much better than one of those small ones. We once had a blowout and only had one of the small ones, and you can’t drive on those for more than so many miles, so we had to find someone to change it for us. With our van, we have a full size spare.
If something does goes wrong:
Use those Internet skills!
YouTube is a really great resource [for auto repair tips], and just Googling things. We just got back from a two day run, and when we got off the highway in Lexington, Kentucky, the van was making a really weird noise. So, we started going through “well, could it be this?” I just got on Google and started plugging in questions.
Doing some parts of a task on your own can save you money
Our friend, Jerry, who is a mechanic, came to see us in Nashville, and when we were moving the van it made this big clunk sound. He said “Your drive shaft is about to fall out.” So I called some auto parts stores and asked, “If I pull the drive shaft out, can somebody put some universal joints on it?” That step required tools I don’t have. So I saved myself a bunch of money by removing the drive shaft, taking it to the shop and having them do the work, and then putting it back in—and that wasn’t that hard.
Don’t take unnecessary risks
If you feel like there’s a problem with the brakes, don’t try to drive your van. Just don’t risk it. You could hurt someone, or you could get hurt.
If you’re planning to buy a new vehicle, find a balance
There’s always the question of “I don’t want to spend all my money on a brand new car—they lose money, and depreciate so fast.” But you don’t want to buy the cheapest thing either because you’re going to dump a lot of money and time into it. I’m so sick of working on vehicles; I’d rather be practicing and writing songs and singing than working on cars.
So, buy the most vehicle you can afford, so it is the most reliable and requires the least amount of maintenance for the longest period possible. Even if you have to take out a loan to buy this mid-range vehicle, would you rather have a car payment, or would you rather drop a thousand bucks for repairs every couple of months?