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: