Music is a hard way to make an easy living; it's kind of like professional gambling only without the security. Although I've been a professional musician for nearly two decades, I'm still amazed that music actually provides a living wage for tens of thousands of artistic-slacker-gypsy-outsider-underachieving Americans. When you think about it, the concept is pretty absurd: somebody pays us to play. (I mean "play" as in: "To occupy oneself in recreation, amusement or sport") What a delicious scam.
There are a few downsides to this scam:
- Every gig eventually ends and replacement gigs are sometimes late in coming.
- Sometimes gigs run too long, the thrill is gone, you're sick of the songs and you want to move on --but can't.
- Every now and then gainful employment in the business of music requires musicians to engage in activities that seem frighteningly close to actual work.
My past week in Nashville illustrates these pitfalls.
On the Road Again
Monday morning I returned to Music City via tour bus from a three day run on the Nashville Star Tour. We have been gigging heavily since June and have only a handful of dates left in the year before I begin pre-production for our next season of Nashville Star
at our new home on NBC. Nashville Star
is a dream gig: challenging, rewarding, fun, great people -- the whole enchilada. Although the fans, the band and the artists have loved the tour, after this many shows the songs play themselves and we are at times hard-pressed to inject each performance with the fire and spontaneity of our July and August shows.
On the bus, band, crew and singers now tend to escape into solo activities like reading novels or searching the web rather than group functions like watching DVDs, listening to music or critiquing our performance. Don't get me wrong; everybody on the Nashville Star Tour loves each other, loves the fans and loves the gig, but like prison lifers in the yard who've been listening to a re-telling of the same ten jokes for years, we crave input from the outside world. On this run I've felt like I'm phoning it in, growing stagnant, losing my chops. I'm tired of hearing myself hack through my same trite guitar licks ad nauseam. In short, I'm burned out, soon to be unemployed and in need of a new gig.
The Phone Rings...
Miraculously, on Tuesday I get a call from the good people at Doc McGhee management about Jypsi, their new act on Arista. Jypsi is a wildly talented group of blue-grasser siblings who have just finished a killer country album replete with tight, blood harmonies, fiery pickin' and what sounds suspiciously like hit songs. They want to augment their sound with an electric guitar and have an industry showcase at the Rutledge on 4th street in Nashville on Wednesday: six songs, an SIR rehearsal the day of at 11:00 am, load in at 3:00 and show at 6:00. I've caught the act before while playing tip gigs on lower Broadway and I loved them. I also love the guys at Doc McGhee. I don't even ask what it pays, I just tell them I'm in and I'll pick up a CD at the management office that afternoon.
I'm home with Jypsi's CD by 2 o'clock and start charting. I feel like a former Olympic sprinter who spent the entire summer drinking beer and watching made-for-TV movies. My brain has atrophied to the size, texture and shape of an old walnut. It takes a while to get into the groove. On the first listen, I chart in broad strokes, get the changes right, note stuff -- it's a straight (D) in the chorus but a "D7th with an F# in the bass" at channel into the chorus. I try to write an accurate outline of the songs. The next time through, I look for the harder aspects of the songs, like the intricate unison and harmony lines.
|“I drag myself to bed exhausted, brain dead, ears ringing. This is what I imagine people with real jobs must feel like five days a week.”
Jypsi has played these songs a hundred times and they play so tight that you couldn't slip a bible page between the notes. I really have to nail it or it will be obvious that the new guy is a clambake on stage. Once I'm somewhat comfortable with the intricacies of the notes and pocket, I approach the different tonal variations I'll need to reproduce the album. It's pretty standard country single coil pickup tones with a bit of natural distortion and just a dollop of old school tremolo. I go to my guitar arsenal and choose a Valley Arts Strat with a whammy bar and Tele with a bender, change strings, put them in a gig bag. To avoid a frantic packing in the morning, I place the guitars, my smaller pedal board and good club-sized tube amp next to my front door. I drag myself to bed exhausted, brain dead, ears ringing. This is what I imagine people with real jobs must feel like five days a week. I enjoy the sensation in small doses but could imagine it would become soul-killing drudgery after a few weeks. On the upside, I feel kind of jazzed up and a little nervous, which I haven't felt since July.
I get to rehearsal early and am alone as I set up and test my rig. The first one to arrive is Scarlett, the Jypsi mandolin player. After an introduction and talk of mutual friends, I ask if we could run through a particularly vexing solo. She's extremely patient as I fumble along and eventually it sounds good, albeit not great. Again, I'm nervous but I like the feeling, like getting to the top of a roller coaster before the terrifying descent. Because Jypsi plays so well together, they make my job easy. We run through the set a few times, polish the tricky parts and are out the door 90 minutes later.
I grab a quick lunch, schlepp my gear into the venue and set up. I don't know the drummer but he seems solid and the bassist is an old friend who I've know for a long time; we've never played together but have been on the same bill many times and I know he's great. Because Jypsi is an acoustic act, I'm careful about my stage volume; my gig is to re-enforce the sound, not bury them. We run two songs and the front-of-house engineer gives us the thumbs up. Jypsi goes into wardrobe.
|“Never give them an option that you don't want to use.”
I show management the few clothing options I have in my car, regrettably they want me in something black and I don't have anything. I sacrifice my perfect parking spot and race home wondering what I have that fits the clothing bill. In my closet I find my grandfather Joseppi's tux pants and some dark jeans, I grab these and a few dark shirts and head back to the venue racing against five o'clock traffic. Sadly, management likes the tux pants, although Joseppi was considerably shorter and wider than me. I'm reminded of advice a fellow musician gave me, "Never give them an option that you don't want to use." But if my wearing short, fat, itchy wool pants is the worse thing that happens on this gig, I will be thrilled.
In-spite of the now-chafing wool pants, the gig is over before I know it. We sound great, all goes perfectly. I have a good tone, remember my parts, stay in time and in tune. I feel like I actually have some musical ability again; this is a feeling I've sorely missed on my last few shows. There had been some gigantic mistakes sneaking off my fingers and blaring out of my amp, like a cold sore shining beneath the lipstick of a beauty queen. The tour burnout did some damage; this gig was a much needed fix, a boot camp to get me back in shape after a summer of sloth. A long-running road gig often makes you complacent as a player and burns out your creative spark. The remedy is to get yourself in the uncomfortable position where you are forced to work on your craft.
John Bohlinger is a Montana native and former Ivy Leaguer who was close to earning a Ph.D. in psychology when he dropped out to pursue a life in music. "The psych background comes in handy when dealing with the music business" John quips. Over his fifteen years in Nashville, John has toured the world, holding down the guitar/mandolin/pedal steel end for over 30 major label artists; he currently leads the band for the hit show Nashville Star, which moves to NBC in January. John's songs and playing can be heard in several major motion pictures, major label release and literally hundreds of television drops. For more info visit johnbohlinger.com