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The Unbreakable Rule

John fights through the pain to adhere to the unbreakable rule: the show must go on.

There are a few general guidelines for working musicians: stay in the pocket, start in tune, be sober enough to play, wear pants, learn your parts. Of course, these are simply guidelines, so should one fail on a few of these, no big deal. But there is one long-standing rule that will put your gig in peril if broken: the show must go on.

Jay Leno tries his hardest to look friendly while keeping his distance from me.

In keeping with that rule, I recently played

The Tonight Show with Jay Leno in a near

delirium of fever after having spent three

hellish days shivering, sweating and doing

lots of other scatological stuff you don't want

to read about. It may have been food poisoning, or perhaps the combination of sleep

deprivation and stress had left me vulnerable

to a nasty virus.

I had been very busy. Eleven days before

Leno, I played the Academy of Country Music

Awards in Vegas with Laura Bell Bundy. After

the show, we played the after-party, and

then I spent a few hours staring at the hotel

room clock before schlepping to a 5 a.m.

lobby call to catch a Monday morning flight

to New York. Tuesday meant another 5 a.m.

lobby call for an 8 a.m. slot on Good Morning

America, and then it was back home for a

few days of studio work and a Friday evening

bar gig until 2:30 a.m.

On Saturday, my wife, Megan Mullins, and I

rose early, drove to Muscle Shoals, Alabama,

to play a Randy Owen benefit show with

Randy and a slew of other artists that we

backed up. After the show, I drove us home

arriving at 3:30 a.m., giving me an hour to get

Megan to the airport to catch a 5:45 flight

to L.A. where she had a gig playing in the

house band on American Idol. After a day of

near fatigue melt-down, I then stupidly took

a last-minute gig in downtown Nashville that

Sunday night from 10 to 2:30 a.m. I began

to feel sick during the gig, and by the time I

got home my head was pounding and I was

sweating profusely. By the next morning it felt

like I had a mild case of the Bubonic Plague.

I spent a delirious Monday sprawled on my

bathroom floor praying for a quick recovery

or a swift death. After choking down some

long-expired muscle relaxers and waking on

Tuesday to more gastrointestinal violence,

I summoned all my strength to respond to

some pre-Leno emails. Management apprised

me that the song had changed. I had to email

the band the details, cancel our horn guys

and make some changes to our stage plot. At

that point I was on autopilot, not sure what I

was doing, and tried to introduce some food

into my system before the next day's flight.

I no longer fear hell after experiencing that

Nashville to Dallas to Burbank flight, all middle

seats, sandwiched between unsuspecting commuters. I would rather sit next to a drooling

Ebola monkey than that sweaty version of me,

and I was living proof that you should always

take Airborne with you when you travel.

Once we arrived at the studio Thursday

morning, I was so pumped to be on Leno

that I began to feel okay. But when I picked

up my guitar during soundcheck, it felt foreign. I rarely go too long without holding

a guitar but there had been none of that

during my three days of porcelain hugging.

I couldn't remember what key we were in

and was never sure I was in the pocket. The

intro is all me and drums. When our drummer, Nioshi Jackson, asked, “You need a little

more hat in your mix, J Boh?" it crossed my

mind that I could really butcher this thing.

Between soundcheck and the show I shut

down in our dressing room until I had to get

dressed and go to makeup, where they added

some color to my deathly pallor. About 10

minutes before we were to go onstage, I felt

that now familiar knife-like stab in my stomach. I went down the hall, out of the studio

and found a bathroom far, far away from the

Leno camp. I made it back to the stage with

five minutes to spare. It occurred to me that

I could quite possibly lose it on Leno—prob-

ably not a first, but not anything I cared to do.

Remembering that somebody once told me,

“If you can laugh about it later, you can laugh

about it now," I smiled and walked on stage.

Remarkably, the show went off without a

hitch. Post show, Laura Bell and I went into

the sound room and listened to the final mix; I

liked our live version of the song, “Boyfriend,"

better than the album version. While there, I

got some great tips from Charlie Bouis, Leno's

live sound engineer, about mic placement.

(He placed a Shure SM57 straight on the grill,

pointing at one speaker where its cone meets

the coil, and a biggish Sennheiser I didn't recognize dead on the second speaker. Charlie

then added a bit of 1kHz sparkle to both mics.)

In short, though it was hellish, I'm glad I

made the gig. And while this column may be

a little too much information, it shows the

ugly side of the business that many don't see.

Just remember: you can break any number of

guidelines, but never break the rule.

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, on major-label releases, and in

literally hundreds of television drops. Visit him at: or