John Bohlinger was the Musical Director at the 2011 CMT Awards this past June. In this special report, he describes the exhilarating experience of putting together a last-minute duet with Kid Rock and Wynonna Judd, and also explains which of his axes he brought to help lead the show.
Kid Rock and Wynonna Judd were scheduled to be onstage 30 minutes ago to rehearse a yet-to-be-determined song with the house band for the opening of the 2011 CMT Music Awards. An army of cameramen, crew, carpenters, producers, recording artists, musicians, and PAs nervously paced around the floor of the Bridgestone Arena. With the meter running at the Musician Union astronomical over-time scale, you could smell the tension mix with the fog machine smoke in the air. Our stage manager Russell got a call on his walkie.
“We need John in Kid Rock’s dressing room. Bring a guitar.”
I grabbed an acoustic, a capo, pick, and pen, and took off running as a stage manager lead me through the labyrinth of backstage tunnels that snaked toward Kid’s dressing room. I was expecting strippers, booze, sweet-stanky Indo-bud smoke, but when I opened the door, it was just Bob Ritchie and Wynonna sitting next to each other with bottles of water in their hands staring at a Macbook. There was a brief introduction (I had worked with both of them before but I don’t think they remembered), then we went to work.
Kid Rock (who I’ll call K.R.), pressed play on iTunes. We began listening to a primitive guitar/vocal demo of the mystery song. I grabbed a sheet of paper and began writing a quick number chart. (For those of you who have not learned this system, do yourself and the musicians you play with a favor and study it. The Nashville Number system is the easiest, quickest way to relay musical information). I wrote the chart as the song played, then K.R. pushed play again while I played along and we checked my chart. Satisfied, now we needed a key that would work for both of them.
Unless you are working with Stevie Nicks and Lindsey Buckingham, male/female duet keys are difficult. The sweet spot for one voice is inevitably too high or too low for the other. Wy, who can sing anything, was very picky about finding the right key; she always sounds great, but knows which keys best showcase her amazing instrument. K.R. had a very different approach. He succinctly summed his key choice: “Doesn’t matter, I can’t fucking sing.” (Personally, I dig K.R.’s voice… trashy but believable with great personality and good relative pitch.) Wy had me run a verse/chorus in the demo key of “G,” then F#, F, back to “G,” Ab, eventually settling on “A.”
Key established, K.R. and Wy suggested we play it old school country – fiddle, steel. Start with broken down verse, no set time, just following Wy’s vocal lead; playing diamonds on guitar and Floyd Kramer style piano, then have the band come in shuffling on the chorus with K.R.’s entrance.
Amazingly, this entire charting/arranging took place in about 15 frantic minutes. I then ran back to the stage, read my chart to the band as they wrote their own version (no time for a copy machine), described our arrangement, then ran it once with me flubbing through the vocals.
K.R and Wy took the stage. Wy said, “Hit it boys,” and we played through.
I suggested we add fiddle fills on the first half of the verse and that the piano take the back half with steel hitting the chorus. We played the song three more times as Wy and K.R. worked through their lines and marks while cameras and lights rehearsed their shots. Thirty minutes later, we were done for the day, having completed the first of 22 bits of music the house band would perform on the 2011 CMT Music Awards, but not even beginning to address the other 15 to 20 live main stage performances.
In an age where so much of the “music” played on television emanates from loops jumbled together by some guy, alone with a Mac in a dark room, CMT deserves praise for their choosing to go with a live band for their award shows. It’s expensive, risky, and time-consuming but Emmy Award-winning Executive Producer John Hamlin (who has worked with some of the biggest names in the music industry, including U2, Madonna, Paul McCartney, The Rolling Stones, The Dixie Chicks, Faith Hill, Kenny Chesney, Toby Keith, Gretchen Wilson, Willie Nelson and Sting), knows that ultimately music remains the focus of the show. Thanks CMT, for keeping it real.
The Right Tools for the Job
Playing in the house band for an award show means covering a lot of sonic ground. Not only do I have to play with eight very different artists, but also cover presenter “walk-on” and “bump-to-break” music that can vary from Western Swing to old school funk and metal. To complicate matters, we are on a tiny stage, 30 feet in the air, which means no room for extraneous gear.
1. PRS Starla with a Bigsby
A Swiss-Army knife of guitars, does it all from Gretsch-y to Strat-ish to lighter Les Paul sounds. Has very solid tuning, even in drop “D.”
2. Hahn Telecaster with Forest Lee Bender
This is Nashville, there are guards on the Kentucky line that won’t let you cross the border unless you have a Telecaster.
3. PRS SE-One
Tuned down to Eb to cover some odd tunings.
4. A PRS DG
A back up, should the others break.
Pedal board: A mixed bag to give me clean, dirty, and swirly (Cry baby, Homebrew, MXR, Boss)
Kustom Coup 72
PRS Super Dallas Head into a RND (Ross Nyberg) 15 cabinet
I run a Dimarzio 10-foot cable from my guitar into my pedal board. The board runs into both amps, which are hidden under the stage to save room. They only mic one amp (not sure which one), but the other amp is there in case one of them dies while 5 million people watch. If an amp goes down, our monitor guy moves the mic over to the other amp and we are good to go.