The intricacies of a TV gig
Last week, I lead the band in this year’s installment of the Larry the Cable Guy Christmas Special for the CMT Network. Dubbed “Hula-Palooza Christmas Luau,” the show embraced a Hawaiian/Caribbean-ish theme with all of Larry’s special touches (pole dancers, little people, fart jokes and Tony Orlando). To “git ’er done,” the band and I faced a few unique challenges. First, the budget and stage size demanded a five-piece band. Generally, I dig a lean and mean band: there’s less sonic clutter and plenty of room for guitar wankery. Television, however, can be a bit more demanding because shows typically cover many genres. The “Luau” theme meant I had to have a great steel player well-versed in Hawaiian guitar to join the bass, drums, keys and me on guitar.
With the band in place, I began working on the live bumper music that would take us in and out of commercial breaks. Bumpers need energy, but these also needed to incorporate both the Christmas and Luau theme with a hint of country flavor. The producers gave me a list of public domain Christmas carols that I could use. I chose “Jolly Old St. Nicholas,” arranging it as a reggae ditty with our keyboard player dialing up the steel drum melody. I ramped up “Silent Night” into a country shuffle straight from the dirty south. “It Came Upon A Midnight Clear” became a Hawaiian hula dance. In all, I arranged 12 bumpers, leaving our producers plenty of options in case a few didn’t feel right.
Band and break music ready, I turned my attention to our musical guest, Billy Currington, who was slated to sing the absolute lamest of Christmas carols, “White Christmas.” Billy and I discussed picking up the tempo and swinging it like SRV playing with Bob Wills, and I made a board tape of our rehearsal with me flubbing my way through the vocals so Billy could wrap his head around the arrangement.
I arrived painfully early on Shoot day only to find audio tangled in some serious spaghetti of black XLR cables. We had no monitors for our first run through. Our stage—shaped like a tropical hut on stilts—bordered the pole dancer hut, which added significantly to the confusion. Whenever the producers cued me to play, I had to shout and wave my hands wildly to get the attention of our drummer, who could not take his eyes off the lithe, young, nearly-naked dancers four feet to his left. When these starlets weren’t dancing, they were leaning over the railing, which gave us a constantly titillating view of the back of their grass skirts and long dancer legs, or their bikini clad fronts—a happy dilemma indeed!
We ran our bumps to break, played some funny parody Christmas carols, and ran Billy Currington’s song. To our surprise, “White Christmas” actually sounded great. The only glitch was the key we’d agreed upon was a bit low for Billy once the adrenalin started pumping, so we brought it up a half step. You’d think playing in between the dots would be no big deal, but because I’d been working like mad on this kind of jazzy intro/turnaround guitar hook, my fingers wanted to play it like I learned it. To make matters worse, Billy’s guitar was tuned down a half step so it looked like he was playing in the key of D. The entire time we played I had to keep telling myself, “You’re in C Sharp. C natural is dead to you. It never existed. Stay focused. Don’t look at the dancers. Remain in C Sharp.” The song went well, but I never felt confident. I haven’t seen the final edit yet, but I fear my part may sound less than fearless.
Tony Orlando, a great singer, was closing the show with the Bing-Crosby-Christmas-crooner-classic, “Mele Kalikimaka.” The idea was that the entire cast would join in, but given that the words to this song are nearly unpronounceable, everybody hung back. I specifically hired a bassist who sang well so we would be covered should this happen. When I told her it was up to us to carry the load, she informed me that she “had a cold and couldn’t [wouldn’t] sing. I tried to convince her that it didn’t need to be a stellar performance; that we just needed voices. But she remained mute, downgrading our big, all-sing closer to a meager duet of Tony and my scratchy, blown-out voice. I was pissed, but what ya gonna do? Just sing like you’re making up for 20 people. Again ... I’m a tad nervous about hearing the final.
Like snowflakes, no two gigs are identical. Learning to hit the curves that live music throws at you makes us not only better musicians, but also helps us become better problem solvers and keeps those synapses firing and dementia at bay. Save the crosswords and Sudoku for the button-down crowd. Let’s gig!
John Bohlinger is a Nashville guitar slinger who works primarily in television, and has recorded and toured with over 30 major label artists. His songs and playing can be heard in major motion pictures, major label releases and literally hundreds of television drops.
Visit him at: youtube.com/user/johnbohlinger or facebook.com/johnbohlinger