Samick Motherlode

December 2014
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Players Play

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For the past four years, I’ve worked with Randy Owen, lead singer for the band Alabama. Because Alabama has enjoyed 41 No. 1 songs and sold over 73 million records, there’s a truckload of material for a set list, and shows tend to run long. Randy tries to keep the fans happy by playing everything—and sometimes even taking requests. One of the cool things about the Randy gig is that, even after a marathon concert of two to four hours, Randy will sit around on his bus playing guitar and singing. He cannot get enough. Randy, along with the rest of Alabama (Teddy Gentry and Jeff Cook), is an incredibly musical guy with a great work ethic.

Last week, I was lucky enough to play a private party with the band. As I took the stage, I looked out in the crowd and saw Steven Tyler, Brad Whitford, and Joey Kramer of Aerosmith. About 35 hit songs into the set, Randy invited them onstage and handed his Strat to Whitford, who promptly ripped into that unmistakable “Walk This Way” riff while Kramer smacked out that funky groove behind me. We all joined in. Tyler started singing and moving the way only he can, and the crowd went crazy.

After an extended jam, Kramer ended the song. By this time, our set had run too long, but Whitford began riffing a greasy blues thing in E. Tyler turned to Randy and asked, “What’s he playing—is this one of your songs?” Randy replied, “I have no idea—he’s your guitar player!” Tyler and Randy began improvising lyrics, then Randy started scat singing and Tyler did a harmonica solo that was pure genius.

When it finally ended, we were way past quitting time. Randy said goodnight to the crowd, and the Alabama and Aerosmith guys graciously hung around and posed for photos until a road manager said, “The helicopter is waiting. We really have to go.”

I packed up my gear and set out in search of a post-show beer. I walked out front to the bar, where a little country band was playing “Tulsa Time.” Whitford was up there with them, playing a goldtop Les Paul with P-90s. Apparently, on the way to the chopper, he heard a groove and jumped onstage for a quick jam. Tyler was standing at the foot of the stage, watching and listening while he bobbed his head to the music. Much like a postshow Randy Owen, these guys just could not stop.

I’ve found that the truly great musicians play music every chance they get. It’s not about the money, the fame, or the approval (although I’m sure all of these added benefits are wonderful). They do it because they need to make music.

A few more examples: I was playing a TV-show wrap party at B.B. King’s Blues Club in Nashville when former Bad English singer John Waite staggered onto the stage and slurred, “N a stong, I’m ... end a Rock ... owed.” Taking an educated guess, I stomped on my overdrive and launched into the Zep’s “Rock and Roll.” When Waite heard the riff, he suddenly became the perfect British Rock God. He literally out-sang Robert Plant’s version and looked great doing it. He finished with a slam of the mic stand then stumbled off into the night. The transformation was nearly superhuman, which made for an incredible performance.

Not long after, I was playing a tip gig with a throw-together band at Tootsies in Nashville when Chad Kroeger of Nickelback walked up to the stage and stuck a century note in our tip jar. I asked, “Want to sing?” He grabbed the mic and said, “Sure. Drums, give me a ba da da, da, ba, da da, da beat. Guitar, hit a low-E chord.” Kroeger began singing CCR’s “Born on the Bayou” and we fell into his swampy groove. Not only did Chad lead the band through his own uniquely bluesy arrangement, but he nailed that nearly impossible Fogerty vocal line. The monitors were terrible, the soundman was nonexistent, and the band was unfamiliar— and yet he managed to pull off a jaw-dropping performance.

Two months ago, I was musical director for a multi-act benefit where American Idol winner Kris Allen was slated to sing three of his songs with the band. After a long day of travel and soundcheck, Allen gave a great performance. After the event, those of us in the house band were contracted to do a two-hour dance set, while the stars were free to leave. I saw Allen hanging out by the side of the stage. I gave him a shout out and he immediately jumped onstage, grabbed an extra guitar, and led us through five or six classic country covers. Given his pop-star status, it was amazing to witness his encyclopedic knowledge of country music. Despite his long day and early flight out in the morning, it was remarkable that he chose to jam for free rather than get some much-needed sleep.

In early August, I was recording in Greece when the band I was working with was invited to a dinner party at Vangelis’ house in Athens. (Vangelis is the Greek composer best known for his scores for Chariots of Fire and Blade Runner.) We arrived about 10 p.m. Appetizers lasted until 11. Dinner took us past midnight. Desert and coffee lasted until 1 a.m. By then, I was deliriously tired and eager to leave because I had a 7 a.m. international flight the next day. Then Vangelis invited us into his living room, which had two grand pianos, a few harps, a PA, some guitars, and a keyboard. He sat at the keyboard and said, “Come play.” Somebody handed me a guitar, our keyboard player, Ty Bailey, sat at one of the grands, and we improvised for over an hour, moving seamlessly from one cinematic, trance-inducing melody to another. Vangelis was excited to play—like a little kid. I think he staged the lavish party just to get a few people to play with him.

Forgive the shameless name-droppery, but these firsthand experiences illustrate a point: The common denominator in phenomenal musicians is their absolute love of playing music. They are sensational because they do it all the time. It truly is about the music.


John Bohlinger is a Nashville multi-instrumentalist best know for his work in television, having lead the band for all six season of NBC's hit program Nashville Star, the 2011, 2010 and 2009 CMT Music Awards, as well as many specials for GAC, PBS, CMT, USA and HDTV.

John's music compositions and playing can be heard in several major label albums, motion pictures, over one hundred television spots and Muzak... (yes, Muzak does play some cool stuff.) Visit him at youtube.com/user/johnbohlinger or facebook.com/johnbohlinger and check out his new band, The Tennessee Hot Damns.
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