On the Road with Nicole (Kuhns) Massey

On the Road with Nicole (Kuhns) Massey

— Written by Rachel Pfennig Hales • Photo by Matthew Miller
(Originally published in FLL#36)

[pullquote align=”full” cite=”” link=”” color=”#ccc” class=”” size=”12″]PICTURED ABOVE: Coldplay’s Production Team, Bill Leabody + Nicole Massey, onstage just before the start of their Mylo Xyloto’s Stadt de France show in Paris with 80,000 screaming fans[/pullquote]

Bethel, New York is nestled into a backdrop of rich, green, tree-covered hills and winding roads.

This sweet, small town is nothing but charming, and only half the size of Lititz. It’s safe to assume that, unless you’re from there, most people would never know it existed. Except, of course, that Bethel, New York is the location of one of the world’s most famous concerts. 1969’s Woodstock changed everything. Still today, people drive hundreds of miles to attend a concert. The Bethel Woods Center for the Arts is three hours and thirty-one minutes from Lancaster City, and the closest Nicole Massey will be to home for several weeks.

[pullquote align=”right” cite=”” link=”” color=”#99c5d3″ class=”” size=””]“Once I started, I just couldn’t stop. It doesn’t matter the role, the goal is just to keep touring.”[/pullquote]

Born Nicole Erin Kuhns, the Lancaster native has made a life for herself on the road. Nearly every morning, she wakes up in a different city. She goes to work backstage. She calls rock stars her “colleagues,” and at the end of every day, she climbs into her driver’s side bunk in the front of the tour bus to fall asleep. See… Nicole is a roadie, and she loves it.

Always a performer, there was no question Nicole wanted a job in entertainment. After graduating as a “proud tornado” from J.P. McCaskey High School, class of 1997, Nicole began dancing professionally for shows around the country, including a European tour of Crazy for You. She made the “jump to rock and roll” with Bette Midler, where she also began exploring various backstage roles. Throughout her career, she has spent time in wardrobe, as a personal assistant, a production coordinator, and even a tour manager at times. A valued member of the production team, Nicole has worked for artists like Rod Stewart, Lionel Richie, The Cranberries, Coldplay, and currently for Van Halen.

“Once I started, I just couldn’t stop. It doesn’t matter the role, the goal is just to keep touring,” she says. To many, though, Nicole’s wanderlust lifestyle must seem completely crazy. Months away from family and friends. Epically long hours. Big personalities. No brown M&Ms. Show biz is not for everyone. However, Lancaster County has an unexpectedly high number of entertainment professionals. Another small town changed by rock and roll, Lititz is home to several concert industry titans. Over 70 percent of the world’s top tours have at least one element made here. From staging to audio, lighting, and design, America’s “Coolest Small Town,” is a creative hub for productions. With the addition of Rock Lititz, a new entertainment compound being built, more and more roadies are relocating to the area. Nicole laughs, “That is so funny to me. When I was growing up, I didn’t know any of that was here!”

Spirited, to say the least, her energy fills the small, backstage office at the Bethel pavilion. There always seems to be someone in line to speak with Nicole, but somehow, the stress level is low and the mood light. Of course, her outfit alone probably contributes to this. In an attempt to “embrace the essence of the venue,” and have a lot of fun, Nicole has dressed in theme. Large, self-made crochet earrings nearly touch her shoulders, and her hair is pushed back by a thin leather band with a clump of white flowers. Throughout the course of the day, she adds braids, rose-colored glasses that cover most of her face, and a tie-dyed shirt in true flower child fashion.

It’s the Sunday of a holiday weekend, which means most of the general population isn’t working. Though she’s been at today’s venue since six this morning, and will stay until nearly one tonight, this is considered a light day for her and she embraces the slower pace. “It’s a nice treat,” she smiles, broad and bright. It seems Nicole is always smiling, at least today. “I started the day with all my usual e-mails and everything, but no one else is there to answer them. That means this afternoon will be slow. My afternoons are never slow.”

That is an understatement. As production coordinator, Nicole’s job never stops. On paper, her position includes logistics, travel arrangements, and catering for crews that range from 40 to over 150 people, and managing the daily production office. However, as “mom” of the group, she ends up doing so much more. Her role is to take care of the group. Sometimes, like yesterday, that means waiting six hours in the lobby of their hotel, on a day off, until everyone else is in their rooms and happy. Sometimes, that means “playing therapist” to those who need it. Or sometimes, like today, that means painting custom cornhole gameboards for a crew barbecue she’s helping plan in order to boost morale. Ultimately, Nicole’s job is really about the people.

Walking down the halls in the hours before Van Halen arrives on site, every person she passes takes time to say hello. Nicole is a hub of this crew. “The best part of my job is the people,” she adds. “Out here, we’re family. Our crew not only has to work together, but essentially live together too. The work can be really challenging, so it’s important we all get along. I have met the most interesting people in this job. There is nothing like it.

“Although, the traveling is a close second favorite. It is just as cool as everyone imagines,” she admits, beaming that big Nicole smile. “I know I’m really lucky. I’ve gotten to see a lot of amazing places, and usually am getting paid to be there. Of course, the long weeks away from home can be hard, but it’s usually worth it.” When she is in a new town, Nicole likes to search out local favorites to get a taste of some authentic culture. Whether in a market, or a dark dive bar, she tries her best to feel at home with her environment.

Recently, Nicole has moved back to Lancaster. For the last five years, aligning with her international career, she has been living overseas in Ireland. When she first met Dick Massey backstage at a Rod Stewart show, she noticed him immediately. He was cute, funny, and surprisingly understood what it was like to tour, having done it for 25 years. It didn’t take long for the two to fall in love. She almost glows as she speaks about him, “He lets me be myself and has never tried to contain me. We are just so natural together. Because of our rock and roll lifestyles, we are kind of gypsies. We go where the road takes us. Fly by the seat of our pants, if you will. I’m from Lancaster, so we both know we love it. Moving here was right for this chapter of our lives, so we moved back. As long as we have each other, home can really be anywhere.”

Moving back to Pennsylvania, the two bought a cute little house in a downtown neighborhood near the college. While they both spend several months away at a time, it is nice to have a place to call home. “If I’m being honest, the first couple days I just sleep and decompress from the pace of the road. But once I’ve had time to rest, I love living downtown. I walk everywhere. My favorite thing is walking to market and getting fresh groceries to cook dinner for the hubby. We both end up eating out a lot on tour, so eating at a table with our family is something we look forward to. We follow it up by walking around the corner to the neighborhood bar for some lager. It’s a great place to live, and it’s nice to call Lancaster home again.” Other local favorites include Captain Gus’s Steak Shop, Granny’s Discount Grocery, homemade Amish desserts, and falafel from Saife’s in the market. Nicole always makes a point to confirm that Omar’s is the best falafel in the world, and she has done the research!

Nicole shows no signs of slowing down in her lifestyle, her career, or her goal to create personalized cornhole sets for the tour tournament she has planned. Even on her self-described “slow day,” she hasn’t stopped moving.

Yesterday, Nicole was in Detroit. Tomorrow, she’ll be in North Carolina. When this tour ends in October, she’ll be switching back to the Coldplay tour, and who knows what band after that. But no matter who she’s working for or where in the world she is, Lancaster will always be home.

This is how Nicole lives. It never stops, and never slows. “This is what I love doing. Work hard, and play harder. It’s great my job lets me do both.”