Big Gigs with Strangers
In February, I played a star-studded PBS/HDNet special entitled "The Outlaw Trail." We filmed at the Paramount in Austin, one of those wonderful old theaters built by true craftsmen that managed to combine ornate aesthetics with incredible acoustics; the kind of amazing venues that have almost all been bulldozed and replaced by strip centers and multiplex theaters. (What a fitting legacy for our generation; beauty and functionality exchanged for shining cheap shit – forgive me, I digress.) Serendipity and luck managed to get me this gig. My great friend and co-writer Dave Goodwin produced audio on the show and suggested me as a featured guest to the executive producer Charles McCutchin. We met, wrote a fantastic song, became immediate friends and, within 40 days, we filmed. The only catch: Charles had worked closely with Poco when they co-ruled California country cool with the Eagles. He wanted Del Castillo to perform “Rose of Cimarron” with me on electric.
Me: "I''d love to, love the song, love Poco, love Del Castillo."
Charles: "It''s imperative that you play it on a Gretsch White Falcon as it was performed on the original."
Me: "You mean if I have the guitar, I got the gig?"
Charles: "In essence, yes."
Me: "I will see you in Austin, Gretsch White Falcon in hand."
The next day I spent more money on that White Falcon than I had ever spent on any guitar. Believe it or not, I found the best deal at a music store in my home state of Montana. The downside was it took a while to get it to my home in Nashville. As I said in my last column, Fear of Flying, I''ve had some bad luck with airlines lately and a friend was going to hand-deliver it to me. I felt a bit nervous about doing four songs on a TV gig with a guitar much different than anything I''d ever played. By the time I got it, I had two days to figure out what those weird switches do, get use to the Bigbsy and the feel of a big, fat archtop and learn how to work a good tone out of those pickups. Actually, it wasn''t that big of an adjustment. Getting away from your normal guitar makes you play differently. In my case, that''s a good thing. I get so tired of my same old bag of tricks that I need circumstance to force me to try and build a melody instead of blowing Tele stuff head to outro.
Charles assembled an amazing cast, including Rodney Crowell, Asleep at the Wheel, Suzy Bogguss, Carlene Carter, Del Castillo, Jessi Colter, Raul Malo, Megan Mullins, Lee Roy Parnell, Ray Scott, Russell Smith, Cowboy Troy, Holly Williams and your humble scribe. The Austin guys in the band were all good players, but it always feels a little awkward being the stranger sitting in with a band of players who work together all the time. They were welcoming and we all found our parts pretty quickly. The hardest part about a situation like this is trying to determine who plays when and knowing when to hang out to avoid muddying up the sound. It''s a tricky balance to get it full but not crowded and flammy. Sometimes mud can be fixed in a mix if it''s a taped show, but you’re far better off getting parts and dynamics mapped out before they roll tape.
John on mandolin
They booked me to play and sing the title song, "Outlaw Trail" along with Suzy, Lee Roy, Russell, and Del Castillo. The arrangement for "Outlaw Trail" came from an impromptu acoustic jam the night before we taped. Charles and Dave Goodwin assembled the four singers, Megan and myself in a hotel room and we worked it out old-school – the “who sings what” of the song. These artists, all wildly talented and far more successful than me, couldn''t have been more kind about including me in the project. The recording of "Outlaw Trail" had a guitar solo, but the mando sounded so good in that hotel room that we decided to keep it to give a bit more variety to our guitar heavy night of music. When we played with the band, the mando worked great in the solo and helped on the rhythm as well, almost as a percussion instrument as it backbeated along with train beat that the drummer stirred out on brushes. Regrettably the cameras were not in the hotel room – that would have made a killer B-roll behind the scenes. Then again, everyone may not have been so wine-drinkingly giggly and jokey if cameras followed it all.
Raul Malo of the supergroup The Mavericks sang the Marty Robbins classic outlaw song "El Paso." Megan and I joined him on BGs, fiddle and White Falcon. Raul took "El Paso" to such a cool place, very far away from Marty''s version. That''s pretty much what you have to do with a classic, otherwise what''s the point, just listen to the original. He balanced it perfectly, making it his own, nailing it, telling Marty''s killer story like the Maverick Raul is.
Imagine mixing the Gipsy Kings and the Rolling Stones, with Keith replaced by Django; that''s Del Castillo, a fantastic band that''s unlike anything I''ve ever seen. They are such a tight machine that it could have felt very awkward for Megan and me to join them. As it turns out, Del Castillo are some of the most fun, good time band of gypsies you''d ever want to meet. They welcomed us in and made us feel like family. They have two killer gut-string players, which left plenty of sonic space for Megan''s violin and my White Falcon.
John (playing the White Falcon) with Megan and Del Castillo
Cowboy Troy, the master of hick-hop, joined Del Castillo, Megan and I for a hybrid amalgam of Latin, country, spoken word and hip hop with thick background harmonies. Troy and I wrote "The Ballad of Cherokee Bill" the week before, and worked up a great little demo on my Digi 002 Pro Tools rig. We sent an mp3 to the producers, who loved it; they forwarded the song on to Del Castillo, who improved on it. We ran the song one time at soundcheck and nailed it that night.
They ended the show with a full cast reprise of Johnny Cash''s "Wanted Man." There must have been eight guitars on stage, which made me completely superfluous, but it was such a cool moment -- there was no way I was going to sit it out in the wings. Everyone was laughing, singing, playing, high-fiving, back slapping and hugging to make it one big love fest. Not to sound too corny, but playing music together does build bonds. This sounds cliché, but remember, most clichés became clichés because they''re based in truth. I will probably never play with most of these people again, but for that short time on stage, we felt something together that I suspect civilians never experience. It makes you think, "I don''t mind the insanity and insecurity of my career as long as I''m rewarded with a feeling like this every now and then.”
"The Outlaw Trail" will be aired on HDNet in May. HDNet''s concert schedule will have the date when it is announced.
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 has moved to NBC. John''s songs and playing can be heard in several major motion pictures, major label releases and literally hundreds of television drops. For more info visit johnbohlinger.com