John Bohlinger has been the musical director for the CMT Music Awards for 12 years. Before that, he was the bandleader for Nashville Star. Here's how he got—and kept—those gigs.
I just completed my 12th year as musical director/bandleader for the CMT Music Awards. You might be wondering: How does a guy of suboptimal intelligence and talent get and keep such a gig? Here's my odyssey.
I'd been in Nashville for over a decade, struggling to support a wife and child as a mostly working musician. This was in an earlier age of the internet, so you just had to find opportunities anywhere you could—word of mouth was the only social media. I heard through some songwriter friends that Tracy Gershon was working on a new singing-contest show called Nashville Star, a country version of American Idol, which had just wrapped its first season. Tracy ran the publishing company where I was formerly a staff writer, so we knew each other. I called and asked Tracy about the producer, and she pointed me toward Jon Small.
Jon is a successful film producer/director, but in his DNA, he is a badass musician, having grown up playing with Billy Joel in their band, the Hassles, on United Artists and their duo, Attila, on Epic Records. Jon played with everybody in the East Coast scene in the '60s and '70s. To this day, Jon is a great drummer, and that musicality makes his films flow musically. He cuts to the beat, so you feel the groove when you watch his work. Check it and you'll know what I mean.
I borrowed a friend's VCR recorder, plugged it into mine, and made a reel of TV shows I'd played on with different artists. If you were touring with an act on the radio 20 years ago, you'd do several shows a year, so I had enough TV performances on tape to cobble together a pseudo reel.
For my meeting with Jon, I rehearsed a little pitch, which went something like: "Jon, when Nashville puts together TV bands, they hire the best, but it's always old guys, sitting down, reading perfectly but playing without passion. I can put together a band of young, hungry players who will give you a fire performance."
I left Jon with my one copy of my "reel." He called me later and said something like: "Put together your band. Here's a list of 120 songs that our 200 finalists are going to perform live with the house band on this audition tour." I said, "Thank you. I'll have your band ready in 10 days."
I charted the songs, arranged them alphabetically in six binders and called friends to fill the slots (bass/BGs, drums, keys/BGs, utility fiddle/BGs, utility steel). There was no budget for rehearsals, so we met in steel-player Dave Ristrim's basement and learned all the songs well enough to play in any key. A few weeks after the meeting with Jon, we were on a private plane with the show's production crew and judges.
The greatest thing in the world is to gamble on yourself and win. The second greatest is to gamble on yourself and lose.
The audition tour alternated travel day/show. On show days, alone with an acoustic, I'd meet each of the roughly 30 to 60 contestants in a hotel meeting room from about 10 a.m. until we were done. A nervous contestant would come in and tell me what two songs they were performing. I'd work out the key and any production-style request (like the record, rockabilly, old-school country, rock, jazz, etc.) and we'd perform it a few times and I'd make notes. After the last artist, I'd race to the venue, read my notes to my bandmates and we'd work out the ideas on my acoustic as they took their own notes. We'd soundcheck, try a few arrangements, then the house would fill with an audience and contestants, and we'd perform with these strangers in front of the cameras, judges, and live audience. We actually pulled it off.
After the third night, Jon said, "You guys are nailing it. You got the gig."
I led the band for Nashville Star for all six seasons. We broke Miranda Lambert, Kasey Musgraves, and Chris Young, three of the biggest and coolest country stars working today, 15 years later. That's an amazing batting average compared to American Idol, which has had 19 seasons.
Here's how I kept the gigs.I always hire a band of genuinely good people I trust, and I utilize their talent. I rarely tell anybody what to play. If a player puts it in a direction that doesn't work, I'll suggest options and we'll jam until it grooves. Although we chart everything, I never have music stands onstage for a show. We have notes at our feet, but the trick is to learn the songs, then watch and play off each other live. It always looks and sounds more engaging when you're not reading.
Being capable is only a small part of getting gigs. You have to look for opportunities and if you can't find any, make some. You also must be willing to work harder than the other person even though there's a good chance nothing will come from your work.
Family, friends, love: Sure, that's all the sweetest stuff in life. But the greatest thing in the world is to gamble on yourself and win. The second greatest is to gamble on yourself and lose. Either way, at least you're playing.
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Looking for more great gear for the guitar player in your life (yourself included!)? Check out this year's Holiday Gear Finds!
D'Addario XPND Pedalboard
DR-05X Stereo Handheld Recorder
Wampler Pedals Ratsbane
Created in collaboration with legendary guitarist George Lynch of Dokken and Lynch Mob fame, the Mr.Scary Mod adds an adjustable tube gain stage and an onboard Deep control, which together are designed to enable an amp to have increased sustain while still retaining note definition and dynamics.
LegendaryTones, LLC today announced production availability of its new Mr. Scary Mod, a 100% pure tube module designed to instantly and easily expand the capabilities of many classic amplifiers with additional gain and tone shaping. Created in collaboration with legendary guitarist George Lynch of Dokken and Lynch Mob fame, the Mr.Scary Mod adds an adjustable tube gain stage and an onboard Deep control, which together are designed to enable an amp to have increased sustain while still retaining note definition and dynamics.
Originally released as the Lynch Mod in February 2021, the updated Mr. Scary Mod features the same core circuit as the Lynch Mod but is now equipped with a revised tube mix combo per George’s preference as well as a facelift in a newly redesigned electro-galvanized steel enclosure. As with the Lynch Mod, each run will be limited and the first run in Pumpkin Orange with Black hardware is limited to just 150 pieces worldwide.
The Mr. Scary Mod adds an adjustable tube gain stage on top of the cathode follower position, keeping note definition and articulation while further increasing sustain. Each Mr. Scary mod is meticulously built by hand in the USA, one at a time, and tuned using high-grade components. Equipped with a single ECC81 (12AT7) in the first position and ECC83 (12AX7) in the second, the Mr. Scary Mod can clean up beautifully when rolling down your guitar’s volume, and still adds scorching gain when you roll it back up. This is a gain stage that’s been tuned and approved by the ears of the maestro George Lynch himself.
“The Mr. Scary Mod excels with dynamics and is incredibly touch-responsive, allowing me to shift from playing clear, lightly compressed cleans to full-out aggressive sustain and distortion –and control it all simply by varying my guitar’s volume control and picking,” said GeorgeLynch. “In many ways, it’s an old-school approach, but it’s also so much more natural and expressive in addition to being musically fulfilling when you can play both the guitar and amp dynamically together this way.”
The Mr. Scary Mod installs in minutes, is safe and effective to use, and requires no special tools or re-biasing of the amplifier. Simply insert the module into the cathode follower preamp position of compatible amplifiers (includes Marshall 2203/2204/1959/1987 circuits) and
immediately get the benefit of enjoying a hot-rodded amp that delivers all the pure harmonic character that comes with an added pure tube gain stage. The handmade in the USA Mr. Scary Mod is now available to order for $319.
For more information, please visit legendarytones.com.
October Audio has miniaturized their NVMBR Gain pedal to create two mini versions of this beautifully organic-sounding circuit – including an always-on gain device.
The NVMBR Gain is a nonlinear amp that transitions gracefully from clean boost to overdriven tones. Volume increases from just over unity to about 10db before soft-clipping drive appears for another 5db of boost. Its extraordinary ease of use is matched by outstanding versatility: you can use it as a clean boost, push a stubborn amp into overdrive or create a just-breaking-up sound at any amp volume.
October Audio’s new family of mini NVMBR Gain pedals includes a switchable version that allows you to bypass the effect: one option features brand logo pedal graphics, while the other sports a fun “Witch Finger” graphic with a Davies knob as the“fingernail”.
The second version in the new lineup is an always-on device featuring the Witch Finger graphic and Davies knob, with the same NVMBR Gain circuit that lies at the core of the switchable version.
- Knob controls gain and clipping simultaneously
- Stunning silver hammertone finish
- Switchable versions are true-bypass, available with classic or witch finger graphics
- Authentic Davies knobs, including the “fingernail”
- 9V center negative power supply required
- Dimensions: 3.63 x 1.50 x 1.88 in
Witch Finger (always on NVMBR Gain) demo
All October Audio pedals are assembled in Richmond, VA, and available for purchase directly through the online shop. Street price is $109 for NVMBR Gain footswitch versions and $89 for the always-on device.
For more information, please visit octoberaudio.com.