With music in his head and ambition in his heart, Nick Hoffman climbed aboard a Greyhound bus, his clothes stuffed in a suitcase, a fiddle in his hand.
The year was 1997, and Hoffman, just 17 and a year short of graduating from Anoka High School, was destined for something — though he didn’t know exactly what.
Left behind that day were his family and home near Nowthen, Minn., just north of the Twin Cities, while ahead lay the first stop on what has turned out to be one wild ride: Branson, Mo.
“I started playing fiddle when I was 4 years old,” Hoffman said. “Let’s put it this way: I don’t remember not playing fiddle. My Grandpa was a fiddler and my Grandma was an old-time piano player. They got me started early.”
Now 37, Hoffman was speaking by cellphone en route to the Nashville airport. This was just before New Year’s and he, along with his wife and fellow musician, Natalie Murphy, and Damien Horne, a band mate in the Nashville-based group, The Farm, were flying to Kuwait for the holiday weekend to entertain U.S. troops.
Not bad for a fiddling-fool of a kid who, when he wasn’t making music, wandered the woods near his Minnesota home, a BB gun in his hand.
“We had a little farm north of Nowthen, and I was in outdoors heaven,” Hoffman said. “I was free to move around through the woods, the corn and the lake that surrounded our house. I loved it. I always felt called to the outdoors.”
Now Hoffman, who grew up dreaming of someday playing in the Grand Ole Opry, and whose big break in country music came when Kenny Chesney hired him to play fiddle in his band — a gig that lasted more than 10 years — is fast preparing to film the second season of his popular outdoors TV show.
Appropriately titled “Nick’s Wild Ride,” the show is broadcast on the Outdoor Channel.
Essentially a cinematic adventure travelogue in which Hoffman does some hunting along the way, and fiddling, “Nick’s Wild Ride” strays far afield, intentionally, from the more traditional hook ’em and cook ’em TV shows that at times can seem a parody of themselves, sprinkled as they frequently are with product placements and freebie acknowledgments.
Hoffman’s approach has paid off: “Nick’s Wild Ride” was the top-rated new show on the Outdoor Channel last year.
“We didn’t want to do just a show about hunting, though I love to hunt,” Hoffman said. “My idol for this type of show is Anthony Bourdain, who not only takes the viewer to a different place with each new show to talk about food, but who digs into the culture and explains what a place is all about. That’s what we try to do on ‘Nick’s Wild Ride.’ ”
A sampling of shows from the first 13-episode season makes the point.
In one, Hoffman stands in the rain alongside a country road, cold, wet and anxious for his ride to show up. When an oversized touring bus stops, Hoffman climbs aboard and is greeted by the country music legend Charlie Daniels.
Daniels has done some fiddling himself, and once settled in, with cameras rolling, Hoffman engages Daniels about his life and times.
Then the two violinists duel on Daniels’ “The Devil Went Down to Georgia.” And as one might expect of musicians who have played the Grand Ole Opry, as both have, and who have performed before millions of people worldwide (again, both have), each is a match for the other — and both are better than their evil provocateur:
The devil bowed his head
Because he knew he’d been beat
He laid that golden fiddle
On the ground at Johnny’s feet
Johnny said: Devil just come on
Back if you ever want to try again
I done told you once, you son of a bitch
I’m the best that’s ever been
• • •
All of which is pretty good, Hoffman figures, for a guy who still can’t read a note of music.
“When I ran away from home for Branson, I just wanted to play my fiddle,” he said. “My ultimate goal was to get to Nashville, which I had been dreaming about ever since I saw Roy Acuff play the Grand Ole Opry on television when I was 12 years old.”
In Branson, Hoffman caught on with a musical act owned by Dolly Parton. He enjoyed it. But in time he returned home, earned his high school degree and joined the cover band High Noon, playing gigs far and wide with that well-regarded group, including the Winstock Country Music Festival in 1999.
The next year, he moved to Nashville, and soon after caught a break: Chesney was looking for a fiddle player, and someone told the budding country music superstar about a fiddler-runaway from Minnesota.
With Chesney, Hoffman has performed with many of his musical idols, including Tim McGraw, George Jones, Dave Matthews and Kid Rock, among others.
All the while, whenever he could, Hoffman hunted. Sometimes pheasants. Other times turkeys, deer, whatever.
“Through my music, I started to meet various outdoor TV celebrities, and occasionally I would be invited to hunt with them on their shows,” Hoffman said. “This would happen once or twice a year. Usually I’d bring my fiddle and play some, too, and pretty soon a producer suggested I get my own show.”
Mitch Petrie is a talent scout for the Outdoor Channel.
“Who wouldn’t want to watch a fiddle-playing, beer drinking, adventure-seeking Minnesota-Norwegian from Nowthen, Minnesota?” Petrie said, noting that “Nick’s Wild Ride” was originally slated to appear on a rival network.
“I knew he was on to something special,” Petrie said. “Nick is passionate, extremely talented, and driven to succeed. It’s these attributes and more that make Nick a character people are drawn to.”
Episodes from the 13-show first season of “Nick’s Wild Ride” will air until July, when the second season begins.
Finding time to balance the show and its required travel to far-flung locations such as Africa, Britain, New Zealand and Argentina, along with a busy life of writing, producing and performing music, is challenging.
“Right now, I’m more hunter than musician,” he said. “I’ve got to find a way to balance the two and still find a way to stay home with my lovely wife and 6-year-old daughter.”
Nashville musician Danny Myrick writes and produces music with Hoffman. He said the Minnesota-kid-turned-Nashville-fiddler-turned-TV-star will find a way to make it work.
“Nick is one of the most diversely talented people I know and is driven to succeed regardless of whether he is in a deer stand, in front of a camera, on a stage or in the studio,” Myrick said. “He’s a straight shooter — and not just with a bow or gun — and a guy I would trust with my life. That, and his wife is awesome. He married way up.’’