How being different can be exactly what a producer needs
Today I was in a writing appointment with Brian Nutter, the mohawked other guitar player in the Nashville Star band. Like most songwriting sessions, we yacked semi-stream-of-conscious style while trying to catch the train of thought that hopefully would take us to a song. We began talking about some mutual friends who are beginning to break into the very closed world of master sessions in Nashville. Brent Mason and a few others pretty much hog all those masters, and why not -- he is an amazing player capable of playing things that I can''t even imagine. Brent is Secretariat: the horse most people bet on when they absolutely need the perfect part fast. And then, there''s the rest of us.
We determined the only way into the exclusive club of master sessions is to get to be known as the weird guy who will take the song to a different place. It''s kind of like a small clothing store competing with Wal-Mart. The boutiques are not going to be able to offer people the same huge selection, so they strive to give the consumer the esoteric. As players, we will not be able to outplay Brent but we can hit them with the goofy shit that he may not think of.
As the words were hanging in the air, my phone rang with an offer to play a master at the Sound Emporium studio in an hour. Brian was cool about ending the writing session early; we live by the code that you drop anything for a master (-- e.g. Honey, I know your contractions are five minutes apart and you''re going to deliver our child any minute, but Dan Huff just called and wants me to overdub a few bars. Just hold tight in the delivery room and I''ll be back in about three hours!) I quickly grabbed my PRS, a ESP Ron Wood with a bender, a few pedals, my Budda amp and ran.
Here''s why they called me:
1). I''m the co-writer of the song being cut.
2). I played everything on the song''s demo.
3). My betrothed is the recording artist and co-writer; nepotism never hurts.
Megan, my sweetheart, was overdubbing fiddle parts when they got to our song. The guitar solo just kind of lay there. Kenny Greenberg, the guy I was replacing, did a killer job on everything on the session but played too safe on that one. The producer, Buddy Cannon (Kenny Chesney, Reba McEntire) wanted something different and Megan suggested me.
I put my cab in an iso booth and set up my head in the control room with me so Megan, Buddy and I could listen together and communicate as we rolled. It was a straight, rocking country track so I kept it simple. I ran a Line 6 delay through the FX loop with my home-brew compressor before the amp. Although the PRS is my favorite these days, I went with Ronnie because the bender could give me the strange stuff that I was going for.
Buddy is the best producer I''ve ever worked with because he just lets me play. It was so much fun to plug in and blow over 12 bars with no direction or suggestions. When you don''t have a roadmap, you may end up someplace different than the guy who knows where he''s going. I took a safe pass, which sounded pretty boring before I came to my senses and started going to the odd place. The problem with the unknown is that my fingers don''t really know their way around terra incognita very well and they sometimes went places they shouldn''t. Buddy, God bless him, just said "keep that, I like it. Take another." I gave them about six passes in about ten minutes, signed the union card, packed up and left. It was the perfect session and a truly Jungian moment in that my morning conversation about masters led seamlessly into the very thing. This bit of synchronicity reconfirmed our guitar player premise of the morning: you can''t be the best guy, so be the weird guy. A cornier way of saying this is: be the best you. Try to find that thing that makes you different and let people hear it. Let your freak flag fly.
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.