Last call: bet on yourself
I just finished my 12th year as Music Director / Conductor for the CMT Music Awards. You may be wondering: how does a man with suboptimal intelligence and talent and keep such a concert? Here is my odyssey.
I had been in Nashville for over a decade, struggling to support a wife and child as a primarily active musician. This was in an earlier era of the internet, so all you had to do was find opportunities wherever you could – word of mouth was the only social media. I heard from songwriter friends that Tracy Gershon was working on a new singing competition called Nashville Star, a country version of American Idol, which had just completed its first season. Tracy ran the publishing house where I was previously an editor, so we knew each other. I called and asked Tracy about the producer, and she directed me to Jon Small.
Jon is a successful 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 performed with everyone on the East Coast stage in the 60s and 70s. To this day Jon is an excellent 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 out and you will know what I mean.
I borrowed a friend’s VCR, plugged it into mine, and made a reel of TV shows I had performed on with different artists. If you were touring with a radio number 20 years ago, you would do multiple shows a year, so I had enough tape TV performances to whip up a pseudo-reel.
For my meeting with Jon, I rehearsed a little pitch, which sounded something like, “Jon, when Nashville puts on TV groups, they hire the best, but they’re still old people, sitting, reading perfectly but playing. without passion. I can assemble a bunch of hungry young players who will give you a fiery performance. “
I left Jon my only copy of my “reel”. He called me later and said something like, “Get your group together. Here is a list of 120 songs that our 200 finalists will perform live with the house band during this audition tour. I said, “Thanks. I’ll have your band ready in 10 days.”
I listed the songs, sorted them alphabetically into six binders, and called some friends to fill in the boxes (bass / BG, drums, keys / BG, utility violin / BG, 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 meeting Jon, we were on a private plane with the production crew and the show’s judges.
The best thing in the world is to bet on yourself and win. The second biggest is to bet on yourself and lose.
The audition tour alternated travel day / show. On show days, alone with acoustics, I would meet each of the roughly 30-60 contestants in a hotel meeting room from around 10 a.m. until we were done. A nervous competitor came in and told me which two songs they were performing. I was working on the key and any production style demands (like record, rockabilly, old school country, rock, jazz, etc.) and we would play it a few times and take notes. After the last artist, I would run to the room, read my notes to my band mates, and we would work out the ideas on my acoustics while they took their own notes. We would do the balances, try out a few arrangements, and then the room would fill up with an audience and contestants, and we would play with these strangers in front of the cameras, the judges and the live audience. In fact, we have succeeded.
After the third night, Jon said, “You’re nailing it. You’ve got the gig.”
I led the group for Nashville Star for all six seasons. We broke Miranda Lambert, Kasey Musgraves, and Chris Young, three of the coolest, coolest country stars working today, 15 years later. That’s an incredible batting average compared to American Idol, who had 19 seasons.
Here is how I kept the concerts. I always hire a bunch of really good people that I trust, and I use their talent. I rarely tell anyone what to play. If a player puts it in a direction that doesn’t work, I’ll suggest options and we’ll play until it grooves. Although we wrote everything down, I never have a desk on stage for a show. We have notes at our feet, but the trick is to learn the songs and then watch each other and play each other live. It always looks more appealing when you’re not reading.
Being able is only a small part of getting gigs. Look for opportunities and if you can’t find any, do it. You also need to be prepared to work harder than the other person, even if there’s a good chance nothing will come of your job.
Family, friends, love: of course, these are all the sweetest things in life. But the greatest thing in the world is to bet on yourself and to win. The second biggest is to bet on yourself and lose. Either way, at least you play.
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