How One Woman Walking Her Dog Led to a Big Break for My Band

During the 15 years I played drums in Rusted Root, I had the wonderful opportunity to perform thousands of shows, travel to amazing places, and meet truly spectacular human beings.

But there’s one show in particular I’ll never forget.

It all started with a woman and her dog...and eventually catapulted Rusted Root to multi-platinum record sales.

The year was 1995 and the gig was in Noblesville, Indiana at the Deer Creek Ampitheater. This was one of our first bigger shows outside of our hometown of Pittsburgh.

When we arrived at the venue to load in our instruments and equipment, there was a stage in the middle of a parking lot, and zero concertgoers to be found. 

Had we made a mistake? Did we show up on the wrong night?

We spoke with the show’s promoter. Turns out, we were right on time…

I felt a little deflated, I’m not going to lie. We had come all that way to play for no one.

And for a minute there, I wondered if it was all some kind of elaborate, crushing practical joke…

I remember Jenn, one of our singers, suggested we still go onstage and play like it was the last time we’d ever get to do it.

Play like you’ll never play again

So we did. We performed like complete animals. Seven musicians wailing away on our instruments like we were playing a sold-out show at Madison Square Garden.

Man, did we have some fun on that tiny, little stage! And I’m sure we looked absolutely ridiculous to the staff working the show that night…  

Then, about halfway through our set, I noticed a slender woman walking her dog through the parking lot, about 50 yards away from the stage. She stopped to listen to us for a few songs.

The one and only attendee.

When I saw her, all I could think was, “Please don’t leave!”

When we finished our last song, there was no thunderous applause, and no roaring crowd—just one woman and her dog.

 Always try your best—

you never know who’s watching

To our surprise, waiting at the bottom of the backstage steps was the woman with the dog.

I was taken aback for a second. I realized that I was looking at nine-time Grammy Award winner, Sheryl Crow.

We explained to Sheryl that no, that wasn’t a rehearsal; we just didn’t have any fans outside of Pennsylvania.

I’ll never forget her words. She told us, “That was the weirdest and coolest thing I’ve seen in a long time!”

None of us could have predicted what happened next.

She invited us to open for two of her upcoming shows in New York and Philly—what would eventually become two of our biggest markets in the country!

That fall, we arrived in New York two days before our gig opening for Sheryl.

Our manager, Rob Kos, arranged a last-minute appearance at some small hole-in-the-wall radio station over the river in Secaucus, New Jersey… at 6 AM the next morning.

The band was exhausted from traveling and wasn’t particularly thrilled about getting up that early, but we went anyway.

We piled into the station to play an acoustic version of our song “Send Me On My Way.” When the “on-air” light came on and we were given the cue, we played that song with an intensity like never before.

And even though the sun had just come up, we somehow had the energy to give it everything we had.

 The band’s unsuspecting massive break

One week later, Rob called me with some exciting news. He said that the radio station we had just played put “‘Send Me On My Way’” into regular rotation.

That was pretty cool. But what was even cooler was that the station was Z-100.

At the time, we had no idea that the little hole-in-the-wall radio station just happened to be (and still is) the biggest pop station in New York City. Nor did we realize that Z-100 is one of the major “tastemakers” for every pop station throughout the entire United States.

That means if Z-100 adds your song to their regular rotation, so does everybody else.

A week later, Rob called again to tell me that 200 more pop radio stations across North America added ‘Send Me On My Way’ to their regular rotation.

What happened next for Rusted Root was probably one of the most insane times of my life.

When the levy breaks

 All hell broke loose when the “break” we had been waiting for happened all at once with massive, uncontrollable fury.

Our new song was everywhere. It’s crazy to think about now…

In a matter of months, we went from playing for no one on a stage in a parking lot to one very important person and a small dog…

From having our song played on Z-100 to being played nationwide…

From playing small clubs to touring nationally with some of the biggest bands in the history of rock like the Allman Brothers, Grateful Dead, and Jimmy Page and Robert Plant of Led Zeppelin…

From selling 100,000 records to eventually selling over 3 million copies of our music.

It all adds up

For us, reality had shifted. My dreams of becoming a professional musician had come to fruition.

Still, I often think to myself about what would have happened if we didn’t completely go for it in the vacant parking lot that one summer night in the middle of nowhere?

Would Sheryl Crow still have taken notice of us if we just phoned in our performance?

Or worse, what if we decided not to play at all?

That pivotal choice opened a lot of doors for us and I’m so grateful that we chose to be the best version of ourselves in that moment.

It was a simple, but monumental choice.

Just like you have a choice, multiple times each and every day, to be the best version of yourself.

The big takeaway I want to share with you today is this: I found that good things happen when you go all-in with the things that matter most—like your relationships, your community, your passions, your purpose, and most importantly…YOU.

It’s time to stop putting yourself on the back burner.

When are you going to just go for it, dig deep, and work toward the best you can possible be? 

Put that greatness that lays within you out on display—especially when there’s no one watching. You might be surprised at the ways it’s reciprocated.

Be Well,

Jim Donovan, M. Ed.


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