Driving the bus and playing the blues: The ballad of Carlton Moore

None of the students know it, but after Carlton Moore parks the school bus on Friday, he’ll strap on a bass guitar and take the stage with a local blues band.

Moore is about to spill his secret though.

Several drivers, officials and volunteers with First Student Bus Co. will participate in a fundraiser for local students and charities. The bake-sale and fundraiser runs from 6-9 p.m. Friday at South Junior High, 3101 Cassia St., and is headlined by a free concert from Moore’s band, the Deborah Michels Gang.

Carlton Moore prepares to pick students up after school Wednesday.

Moore has been driving students to and from class in the Boise School District for about two years. In the morning he’s a substitute driver. In the afternoons, he drives a small group from the district’s Student Transition Education Programs, before hauling larger loads of elementary students from Liberty and Riverside.

Moore is more than a bus driver and rocker though. He describes himself as a full-time caregiver to his wife of 36 years, Annie. Doctors diagnosed Annie with lymphoma more than four years, and the couple’s free time has largely been relegated to little more than a pleasant memory.

That leaves Moore with time for just two real passions — the bus and the blues.

“All my years in printing, I didn’t like printing, I didn’t care at all,” said Moore, who was laid off after 33 years working on printing presses shortly after Annie got sick. “Then I started to drive the bus. It’s kinda funny — I barely make enough money to get by, but I really enjoy the job.”

Driving is nearly the perfect fit for Moore. With Annie enrolled in Medicaid, he says he can’t earn too much money and retain the benefits.

The morning and afternoon routes also open up a free window that Moore uses to take Annie to doctors’ appointments.

That’s not to say every ride on the bus is smooth and relaxing. Some mornings, students are a little too excited and riled up.

But Moore is proactive.

At the beginning of the year, he laid down three rules.

Stay in your seat when the bus is moving.

Use inside voices.

No food.

“If you have good student management, it’s almost a pleasure,” Moore said.

If they follow the rules, the students may be rewarded with their choice of free seating on Fridays.

If not?

Moore pulls the bus over, stops and repeats his three rules.

He reports that trick being more effective than you might imagine.

***

Moore has been playing bass with Deborah Michels Gang, or D.M.G., for about a year and a half.

After Annie was hospitalized, Moore picked the bass back up and began to play seriously.

Once, when Annie’s siblings came to visit, Moore attended an open jam sessions.

Too nervous to play, he sat and watched.

Twice.

The third time, feeling all nervous and green on the inside, he summoned the courage to jam. He was so self-conscious he stood at the side of the stage, afraid to look at the audience.

But something clicked.

A release.

From there, it snowballed.

Moore moved on to an acoustic jam.

He started meeting other musicians and receiving invitations to play.

He met a guitarist whose wife died after battling brain cancer, and the two bonded.

Carlton Moore, left, and the Deborah Michels Gang. Photo courtesy of the D.M.G. Facebook page.

Then Moore started filling in for Deborah Michels Gang, which soon promoted him to fill an opening.

“I don’t play it because I’m good,” Moore said. “I play it because it’s good for me.”

Lots of days, Moore could just scream.

He worried he couldn’t afford the medical bills.

His truck broke down, and he said he was lucky enough to borrow another.

He worried he would lose his house, but talking to his bank and driving the bus has allowed him to keep a roof over his family’s head.

Once he plugs in, whether it’s during the weekly practice with D.M.G. or on stage at Powderhaus Brewing Co. or Shangri –La Tea Room, something changes inside Moore.

“When I start to play, I don’t even feel it happen at the time,” Moore said. “I’ll play a two-hour set or three hours, then get everything packed up and, it’s like, ‘it’s gone.’ It feels so good. Even sometimes just going to practice, I’ll be wound up and hurt and it makes me feel better.

“If I didn’t have that, I’d probably pop.”

Despite his love of music, Annie hasn’t really seen Moore play a real gig. She’s seen him jam and practice, but hasn’t seen a real show.

So Moore went to a hobby store, picked up some stick-on letters and spelled out A-N-N-I-E on his bass, right under the volume knobs.

“You’re with me, even if you’re not physically able to go to the gig,” Moore said.

It’s a nice touch, but the couple has bigger ideas.

Inspired by something he saw in a music video, Moore bought a used Fender Precision bass. He took off the strings, carefully removed the neck and electronics and sanded the finish down to bare wood. Next he primed it white and bathed his instrument is a sea of cool, azure spray paint.

The rest is up to Annie.

Using delicate brushstrokes, she feathered his instrument in imagery of flowers and peace signs, bees and butterflies.

She depicted portraits of Jimi Hendrix and Janice Joplin.

“Give peace a chance,” it reads.

“Make love not war.”

“(Playing bass) is the only thing I do for a hobby, if you will, and she’s always behind me and very supportive of me doing it,” Moore said. “When she’s gone, I’ll still have that guitar.”

If you go

Deborah Michels Gang performs at the First Student Bus Co. bake sale and fundraiser from 6 – 9 p.m.. Friday, Sept. 29, at South Junior High, 3101 W. Cassia St., Boise. Admission to the concert is free.

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