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The Surreal McCoys - A Dose of Reality on Reality TV

September 1, 2008
Nashville Star ended this week and I immediately began work on a program for the GAC network called The Next GAC Star. (I know, I know, that''s not a particularly original name.) We worked with two very different producers: Desmond Child and Victoria Shaw. Desmond''s collaborations run the gamut from Bon Jovi and Aerosmith to Ricky Martin, KISS to Kelly Clarkson, Cher to Alice Cooper. Victoria just finished producing the new hit country group Lady Antebellum and has had her songs recorded by Garth Brooks, Doug Stone, John Michael Montgomery and a ton of others. Desmond and Victoria have had similar career paths; both were recording artists who became successful songwriters and later producers. That is where their similarities end. Their approach in the studio could not be more different.$0 $0 $0 $0 $0 $0 $0 $0 $0 $0$0 $0 $0 $0 $0 At The Tracking Room in Nashville, working on The Next GAC Star for the Great American Country Network, L to R: Pat Severs, Carlo Marino, John Bohlinger, Desmond Child, Megan Mullins, Brian Nutter, Lee Turner and two sweet-ass PRS David Grissom models.$0 $0 $0 $0 $0 $0 The Set Up$0 We did not have NBC''s budget for a seven piece band like on Nashville Star, so I went with the same players from NS but dumped our bassist, deciding instead to split bass duties between Brian Nutter (the other guitar player) and me. This gave us a bit more variety on the guitar/vocal end and gave me a good excuse to play the ESP vintage series bass that I really love. Playing bass for roughly half a show is just about right. It makes me feel the groove much more clearly when I jump back to guitar and I tend to lay back a bit more instead of leaning toward the front of the pocket on guitar.$0 $0 I didn''t want to carry a ton of stuff to the studio so I brought just two guitars, a PRS DG that I used 90% of the time and a Peavey Telecaster (one of my all time favorite guitars because it has an incredible custom paint job by my son, August) with a B-Bender for the really country stuff. I ran it into my pedal board and Valvetrain head which I kept with me and ran it to a 2x10 cab in an iso booth. I had my studio board which runs my compressor and power driver before the amp and the swirling/delay-type effects through the amp''s effects loop. I brought my bass plus a five string back up which I hate playing, but you need when you work with chick singers. I ran it into an Ampeg head which again I kept with me and mic''d the cab in a booth. I also brought my Weber mandolin that our fiddle player, Megan Mullins and I would share.$0 $0 Although we were tracking in a studio, the television producers wanted us out of isolation booths and all playing in the same room, which meant running acoustic guitars, fiddle, dobro, banjo and mando direct; not an ideal sonic solution but it does feel good to all be in one room playing like a band. Desmond and Victoria and the singers were also all in the same room with us.$0 $0 I met with the contestants the night before the session and charted their songs. One contestant had written a song (kind of) but did not play an instrument. In a crowded room full of contestants, producers and a film crew he sang me a shaky melody while I followed him on guitar to chart the song. Because this is a contest, I had to hold back my instinct that was shouting silently inside my head "Don''t go to the major seven... please don''t, oooh no, he is. Please end on the tonic.. just end on the tonic... nope.. he''s not going to, is he... just kind of leaving it hanging on that five." $0 $0 All in all it went pretty well and sounded like a real live song when we were finished. I was glad that we did this charting the night before rather than in the pressure-ladened studio while the tape/film/clock is running.$0 $0 Tracking$0 Day one in the studio was Victoria -- down to earth, easy going, no pressure. Victoria worked with the contestants on their pitch, focusing on which key would highlight what they do best. With the band, she leaned more toward a traditional country instrumentation, (steel, fiddle) but pretty much let us do what we wanted. "Hire good people and let them play" was her battle cry. When somebody had a clam, she didn''t even mention it; she knew we''d get it on the next pass. One contestant was doing a cover of a very current Taylor Swift song. Victoria asked, "Why are you doing this song? What''s the point of trying to sound just like somebody on the radio right now? If you''re going to do this song, make it something different." We ended up going full-on bluegrass, sans guitar, just bass, fiddle, dobro, train-beat snare and me on mando. We were out of there hours before schedule.$0 $0The next day was Desmond, chauffeured by his babe assistant Tina in his Nashville Bentley -- fun, in charge, looking fabulous and somewhat intimidating. He started with the non-instrument-playing (sort-of) songwriter. My plan was to deliver such a kick-ass, moving production on our end that nobody would notice the limited lyrical content, (one wafer thin verse and somewhat repetitive chorus) and the skimpy melody, (about four notes.) We started intimately with a cool little signature line on fiddle echoed by B3, built into a big rocking power ballad chorus. We then substituted a guitar solo for verse two, used a dramatic stop on beat two of the second chorus, swelled even bigger on Chorus 2 and ended with our signature line on guitar, fiddle and B3. My PRS was really singing and I was into it. As the last note faded we all looked at Desmond who said, (on camera, mind you), "That was the worst song I''ve ever heard in my life, man. That sucked." In an industry where everybody walks on egg shells so as never to offend anybody, but says terrible things behind everybody''s back, Desmond''s candor felt refreshing. The entire band held back giggles as we watched this contestant''s heart instantly snap. Desmond took the singer, Lee Turner (our keyboard player), and me to the piano room and he painstaking polished this turd of a song until it became interesting. This may not be fair to the other contestants, but who''s going to argue with Desmond Child? This writing session put us way behind schedule and eventually our producer, Tom Forrest, began giving me the wrap it up hand motion.$0 $0 They herded us back into the tracking room and pushed record. We were sight reading fresh charts at this point so there were a few inevitable mistakes, which Desmond caught and called out, not in an angry way but more of a making sure we know where we are going way. Desmond had a very definite vision and would map it out clearly -- stuff like: "On the break down I want the bass playing whole notes and up an octave."$0 $0 Reality$0 I like direction. Sometimes the land of infinite possibility can be a little scary when you''re not sure what''s going to make somebody happy. Regrettably, the singer who had never been in a studio was a bit overwhelmed. Desmond was cast as a mentor but had become this poor, ill-equipped contestant''s tormentor. He pointed out every flaw in the contestant''s performance and showed him how to fix it. None of this was malicious, in fact, it was incredibly kind because if this contestant were to follow Desmond''s advice he may become a legitimate act rather than just a guy who kind of likes to sing. It was painful to watch but as we all know by now, this kind of torture makes great TV. The cool thing about it is that Desmond was this way even when the cameras weren''t rolling. He worked ad nauseum on every note the singer missed, (and there were many) in hopes of helping him. I know I would have given up way earlier.$0 $0 My philosophy is: either you got it or you don''t; those who ask will never understand. Maybe Desmond secretly feels the same way, but he wanted to do all he could to help this singer to become everything he could, even if it''s a lost cause.$0 $0 The band and I all talked afterward about how cool this session was and we felt lucky to be there. It''s easy to lose perspective of what is real when working in reality TV. Throw in a producer/artist like Desmond Child doing a country music star quest and you have a full-on surreal experience. $0 $0 $0$0 $0John 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. John''s songs and playing can be heard in several major motion pictures, major label releases and literally hundreds of television drops. His recent TV gigs have included leading the bands for Nashville Star and The Next GAC Star. He is also a co-editor and co-writer for the book, Guitar and a Pen. For more info visit johnbohlinger.com.$0