Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Henry County man builds buses for the stars



Henry County man builds buses for the stars

Bobby Easter's customers include country music entertainers, a gospel group from the region and even a Canadian hockey team.


Bobby Easter stands inside a 2005 MCI bus recently sold to a Canadian hockey team. Easter said that many churches that once relied on 15-passenger vans to carry congregation members now buy buses that hold more people, and have a bathroom and luggage space.]

Bobby Easter says it over and over, "I love buses." He even had one tattooed on his right upper arm with the names of all of his grandchildren.

Bobby Easter uses a code to open the door of a 2005 bus used by Larnell Starkey & The Spiritual Seven Gospel Singers.

The shell of a MCI DL3 bus that is being completely refurbished and will be either a charter or church bus. It was recently given a new coat of exterior paint in the spray booth. Two seats are left for passengers to sit when the bus is being test driven. Easter will design the interior and have it installed.

This MCI 2006 entertainer bus was used by Barbara Mandrell and then by Casting Crowns and is one of Bobby Easter's fleet. It sleeps 12 and includes two living areas, one in the front and one in the rear. Many music groups rely on their tour buses for "a home away from home."

Bobby Easter had a copy of the cover for the 10th album produced by The Easter Brothers, "Don't Overlook Your Blessings." Bobby Easter is the young boy in the picture.

Bobby Easter's has a field of about 300 buses, waiting for their rebirth, along Fairystone Park Highway (Virginia 57) just outside of Bassett. Easter said he's sold about 60 of them.

Photo from GoogleEarth

An aerial view by Google Earth shows hundreds of used buses parked at Easter's Bus and Coach Sales' main location off the Fairystone Park Highway in Henry County. The company's inventory also includes used buses parked elsewhere along the highway, as well as off U.S. 220 in Franklin County and in Mount Airy, N.C., and Maiden, N.C.

Bobby Easter grew up lullabied by bluegrass gospel and the diesel chuffing of the Easter Brothers’ tour bus.
He was 6 months old in 1961 when his mother left him and his two older brothers and their musician father, Edd Easter. Father and sons moved from Danville to live with Edd’s mother in Mount Airy, N.C.
After Edd remarried, the family moved to Woolwine in Patrick County.
A constant throughout these transitions was the tour bus that the boys often thought of as home.
“One thing these Easter males had in common was that they were spending a lot of time sitting on the same bus, riding from gospel show to gospel show,” reports an online iTunes history of the Easter Brothers.

Bobby, now 51 years old, bought his first used bus in 1979 for $5,500 from a man in Greensboro, N.C. It was a General Motors 4104, described by many bus aficionados as the most popular highway coach of all time. He kept the bus about six months, fixed it up a bit and then resold it for $15,000.
“And I thought, ‘Hello.’ Then it kind of escalated,” he said. “All the Easters have wound up having a bus. I just went overboard.”

About 30 years ago, Bobby Easter and his wife, Karen, founded Easter’s Bus and Coach Sales and Easter’s Auto Sales in Henry County. Last week, Bobby Easter said the company inventory included about 500 used buses, “more or less.”

He buys used buses from a host of sources, including transit or charter bus lines that have gone belly-up . He occasionally acquires dozens of coaches in one deal. Sometimes the buses are simply refurbished. Other times, “seated buses” are converted into entertainer coaches, with bunks and couches, a bathroom, a kitchen, satellite TV and more.

Music performers who have bought or leased buses from the business have included, among others: Rascal Flatts, Barbara Mandrell, Casting Crowns , the Lonesome River Band, the Statler Brothers, Mel Tillis and the Oak Ridge Boys.

Easter’s Bus and Coach Sales has sold buses to customers throughout the United States and Canada, as well as to buyers in Guatemala and Puerto Rico. Easter said the highest price he has ever gotten for a bus was $750,000.

Edith Davis is vice president of operations for Danville-based Bosman Coach, a charter bus company that has purchased several motor coaches from Easter.
“He’s been a good person to work with and very understanding,” Davis said. “We’ve never gotten a bus from them that we had to do any major work on.”

Hundreds of used buses are stashed at Easter’s Bus and Coach Sales’ main location along the Fairystone Park Highway near Bassett. About 50 are parked off U.S. 220 in Franklin County between Rocky Mount and Martinsville on land the Easters own. More are stored elsewhere, including in Mount Airy and Maiden, N.C., Easter said. About 50 buses are being leased by customers, including entertainers.

Tim Hall , Henry County’s administrator, acknowledged in an email that officials occasionally field complaints that the parked buses are an eyesore.
“We receive periodic complaints regarding the buses, particularly along the Virginia 57 (Fairystone Park Highway) location,” Hall said. “Members of our staff have a fairly consistent dialogue with Mr. Easter to make sure he is complying with the regulations under which he’s supposed to operate.”
As a youth, Easter’s upbringing emphasized music. He dropped out of high school.
“My grades weren’t good,” he said.

He said he wishes he had stayed and gotten a diploma.
“I think I would have had more self-esteem if I had got that,” he said.
He moved to Nashville, Tenn., and worked as a staff musician at the Grand Ole Opry for about a year and a half. Easter said that even though he “can’t read a lick of music,” he can play more than a dozen instruments — including the banjo, Dobro, mandolin, piano and steel guitar.
Edd Easter left school early, too.
Bobby said it seems God gave the family musical ability to help them compensate for a lack of formal education.

“It was either play music or starve,” he said.
When Easter left Nashville and returned to Woolwine, he said some people likely figured he would never amount to much. But then he met Karen at the store where she worked in Collinsville.
“After I met Karen, I thought, ‘I’m going to make something of myself,’ ” he said.
He and Karen have been married more than 33 years. Daughter Melissa Easter-Calfee, 32, works in the family business. Daughter Michelle is 29. Bobby and Karen have four grandchildren.
Easter-Calfee said her father’s casual clothes can be deceiving.
“Looking at him, you wouldn’t know he was a businessman,” she said. “How he dresses, you wouldn’t think he had anything.”

Easter acknowledged he feels most comfortable around customers in similar attire.
“The man in the suit scares me. But the man in bib overalls or jeans — he’s going to buy a bus,” he said.
Karen handles finances for the business, makes decorating decisions for bus makeovers and much more.

“I can put deals together,” Bobby Easter said.
Average annual revenue for the auto and bus businesses totals “probably about $6 million,” he said.
Larnell Starkey & The Spiritual Seven Gospel Singers, based in Wirtz, has toured in buses purchased from Easter’s Bus and Coach Sales.
Dar Alexander is CEO of Dar Records and handles bookings and sometimes plays keyboard for The Spiritual Seven.
She said she has bought four buses from Easter’s, including one seated bus and three entertainer-style buses.
“We can’t survive without our buses,” Alexander said. “They are our home away from home. We consider it a blessing to have been working with Mr. Easter. He’s been a lifesaver for us. We don’t want to deal with anybody else.”
She said she has referred several other gospel groups to Easter’s “as we have traveled across the United States.”
Meanwhile, it’s clear that Bobby Easter’s affinity for buses has been inherited by at least one grandchild.

Sage Calfee was 9 years old when he overheard his grandfather muse out loud that someone should go out on the lot and fetch a refurbished bus that had been sold to a hockey team in Canada.
Easter said he did not pay much attention when Sage said, “Papa Bobby, I’ll do it.”
A few minutes later the 45-foot bus pulled up out front, with Sage at the wheel.
Photos taken during Bobby Easter’s childhood nearly always feature a bus somewhere in the frame.
The cover photo for the Easter Brothers’ “Don’t Overlook Your Blessings” album reveals a boyish Bobby. He stands stiffly, appearing somber and slightly canted in his double-breasted blazer, posed amidst smiling kin in front of the Easter Brothers’ bus.

Today, Bobby Easter’s tattoos include a banjo on one forearm and a guitar on the other. He rolled up the right sleeve of his black T-shirt to reveal the tattoo of a bus scribed with his grandchildren’s names.
“You’ve got to have a bus wherever you are,” he said.

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