The Real Country band: From left to right, in the front row is drummer Sarah Tomek and Natalie Murphy, who plays violin, mandolin, acoustic guitar, and percussion. Pictured in the back row is pedal steel, guitar, banjo, and resonator guitar player Eddy Dunlap; guitarist and keyboardist Michael Hughes; bandleader John Bohlinger; and electric and upright bassist Rob Cureton.
When Johnny Depp was filming the first Pirates of the Caribbean movie, Disney executives thought his interpretation of Captain Jack Sparrow was way off the mark. According to Britain’s The Independent, Disney’s then-CEO Michael Eisner ranted: “Goddammit, Johnny Depp’s ruining the film! What is that thing? Is it drunk; is it gay?”
Depp reportedly told Disney execs they could trust him with his choices or let him go. The gamble paid off brilliantly for all involved. Depp earned a Screen Actors Guild Award and Best Actor nominations in the Golden Globes and the Academy Awards. Depp also earned a ton of dough and a sweet pirate-themed Gibson J-200 as a gift from the studio. Disney grossed over $650 million for each film in the franchise. Perhaps more importantly, Depp and Disney created something wonderful. (I’m talking about the first movie. I only made it through part of the second and gave up after that.)
I thought about Depp’s very baller, trust-me-or-fire-me move last week when I was recording a session with some friends. The four of us play a semi-regular, live-band karaoke-ish club gig in Nashville twice a month when we can make it. It’s super fun, no pressure, and good for the brain—like Sudoku or a crossword puzzle, but without the torture. These loose gigs where we can stretch, blow, and not sweat mistakes have made us comfortable with each other. When we’re on, we’re really on, so sessions together tend to be low pressure and fun.
On this particular session, one friend who was leading handed out charts, we talked about the feel, tried out a few grooves, and then we blew down a take that was kind of magical. I was ready to walk into the control room with my bandmates to pat each others’ backs while listening to a rare, exotic bird one rarely sees in the studio: the keeper first take. Right before I took off my headphones, the engineer in the control room said on the talkback, “John, take it again. They want you to think more ’80s rock.”
Same planet, different worlds.
I’m not knocking ’80s rock. There’s some amazing guitar playing that came out of there, but I don’t speak the language very well. I feel as silly faking it as I would squeezing into leopard-print spandex pants. The direction felt inherently wrong, because a bombastic guitar part would not fit the cool, understated groove that the drums, bass, and keys had laid down. But what else could I do?
I strapped on humbuckers, stepped on a chorus, ’verb, lots-o’-dirt, and dweedle-dweedled my way through some very unsatisfying takes. It was not great guitar playing. Perhaps it was not even good guitar playing. I felt ashamed and kind of hated myself. “Oh well,” I thought, “the engineer can probably fix my part in the mute.”
My philosophy in business has always been “the customer is always right.” Here’s the rub: There are times when customers don’t know what they’re talking about. Maybe if they’d listen to the people they’ve hired, who have more experience and knowledge, they could expand their vision and ultimately get to a place that would be far more satisfying than what they imagined. Often, we need a little guidance to get beyond our limited vision. The best producers/employers are those that give direction, but are open to the vision of musicians and trust their judgment.
Currently I’m working as the music director/bandleader on a new TV series called Real Country, created by the producers of The Voice. It’s truly a dream gig. I’m working with a wildly talented group of producers who push us to go outside the box, give us just enough direction to see where they want it, but ultimately trust me and the band to get it there.
I’ve hired an amazing band of friends I’ve known for years. Although this lineup has never played together before, it feels like an established band because everybody listens. When we start to work on a song, I hand out my charts and ask the band to point out any mistakes. Our keyboardist, Michael Hughes, usually corrects me in a friendly, non-pedantic way, like “in measure 4, that D7 is actually a Bm13 with an F# in the bass.” Piano players, right? His way is usually cooler. Next, we’ll talk instrumentation and who plays where so we’re not walking on each other. After that, I pretty much leave them alone.
A good band is like the title characters in the children’s book The Five Chinese Brothers. The members have their own superpowers. Let them do what they do and stay out of the way. If you don’t trust his or her abilities or inherent taste, hire someone else.