This is another question I was asked in an interview by Wendy Willis for her upcoming book ‘Making It In Nashville‘. The question made me think of a few different scenarios regarding how auditions are conducted in the Nashville music industry. The following exemplifies two of the most common types of auditions.
The Gretchen Wilson Cattle Call
By 2004 I had already been in Nashville for a couple of years when Gretchen Wilson’s ‘Redneck Woman’ hit the airwaves, launching her into immediate super stardom. A few weeks after this song debuted on the radio, I heard through the grapevine that she was holding auditions to find an acoustic guitar player for her touring band. By the time I heard about these auditions, the rest of this band had already been assembled. By making a few phone calls I was able to track down a contact within her camp. During a very brief phone conversation he gave me the names of two songs to learn, ‘Redneck Woman’ and ‘When I Think about Cheatin’, and a timeslot to audition at the Sound Check rehearsal facility. I learned the songs and showed up to Sound Check about a half hour early on the day of my audition. As the auditions were running late, I picked a spot in the hallway outside of the rehearsal room amidst a sea of other hungry guitarists, all with their acoustics in hand, many wearing what was obviously their best stage clothes.
The high point of this day for me was not actually my audition, but listening to the band Journey rehearsing in one of the other rooms down the hall. They sounded magnificent and were truly inspiring! I even got to meet Neal Schon when they took a break. Standing outside their practice room door and listening to them play helped me to take my mind off of the nerve-racking moment that still awaited me. But this brief detour into my rock ‘n roll dreams of yesteryear ended when my name was finally called. I entered the cavernous room, which I believe was the biggest room at the facility, and the intimidating scene quickly came into focus. A large stage filled with gear and musicians and fronted by a substantial PA system was staring me in the face from the opposite end of the room. I was greeted near the doorway by Gretchen’s manager who chatted with me briefly, asking a few questions about my experience. I headed to the stage where the musicians that comprised her nearly complete touring band, none of whom I knew, patiently waited. After plugging in and getting a quick monitor level, Gretchen entered the room and sat on a stool about 30 feet in front of the stage.
So there I was, standing on the stage surrounded by strangers, and performing for an audience of country music’s newest superstar and her management. The band counted off ‘Redneck Woman’ and I began strummin’ away. While sitting on the stool, she belted out the song as if she were an arena filled to capacity, watching my every move. The song ended to a stone cold silence which was quickly interrupted by somebody yelling out ‘When I Think about Cheatin’, which was immediately counted off. That song ended, seemingly as soon as it started, and my audition was over. A couple of the players said “Good job” and her manager said “Thanks , we’ll let you know something by the end of the week.”
Fearing that I didn’t make the grade, I left the rehearsal hall and drove home not having a clue about how I was perceived. They did call me a few days later to notify me that I was not chosen. I remember hearing later that the player they chose for the spot had already been chosen before that day of auditions. Perhaps they were trying to see if there were any other options, looking for a backup, or appeasing the management. All in all, it was a fairly miserable and stressful experience, but it was educational. This was my first cattle call style audition, and while it did not land me the gig, it did help prepare me for future auditions. Since that day, I’ve done several other cattle call style auditions, all of which were somewhat similar. Until you ever get to do one of these, the term ”cattle call” will only have a vague meaning to you. But after you stand in the middle of a long line of auditioning players, get quickly corralled in it out of the feeding lot, tagged, tested, and sent on your way, you will immediately understand.
Rhett Akins Showcase for BNA Nashville
It was late summer, 2005, and right in the middle of touring season, when Rhett Akins, one of the artists I was working for at the time, told me we needed to prepare for a record label showcase. His management had helped him gain the attention of Joe Galante and some other executives from the record label, BNA. We had about two weeks to prepare for it, so a couple of rehearsals were scheduled for us to build and hone a short set of his strongest material that would hopefully land him a new deal.
His management made arrangements for the showcase to take place in a small comfortable nightclub located on Third Avenue in downtown Nashville. We arrived to the venue early in the afternoon on the day of the showcase, loaded in our stage gear and monitor rig, and began setting up. We did a sound check and rehearsed a few of the tunes. It was tough to get a good sound in this particular room as the acoustics were less than desirable, but after several adjustments, we arrived at an acceptable place. After sound check we chilled for a bit, ate some dinner, and waited for downbeat.
The showcase was scheduled for seven o’clock, and around six o’clock some patrons began to arrive. It had been encouraged for us to all invite and bring as many friends and family as possible to help create a warm and inviting atmosphere for the big wigs. The turnout was pretty good, and the club was near full just a few minutes before showtime when Galante and his entourage arrived to be seated at a reserved table, one that had been strategically chosen for sight and sound.
Just a couple minutes before we hit the stage we all gathered in a back room to have a quick pep rally, kind of like a football team going into one last huddle before game time. If Rhett was nervous, he wasn’t showing it, he was cool as a cucumber. I was probably more nervous than he was. Dressed in our best, we hit the stage hard and fast, and the first two songs, played back-to-back, were over before I knew it. The crowd roared with approval, and Rhett began to turn on the charm, addressing the room as a whole and putting everyone at ease. He had been working out hard all year and was in great shape, not only giving off the vibe of a superstar, but also showing off a youthful physique, similar to that of his college quarterback days of yesteryear. We stomped through the rest of our 50 minute set with Rhett talking occasionally between songs, even getting some laughs out of the table of executives. The set ended and we began to break down our gear while Rhett courted the table of potential business partners.
As far as these kinds of showcases go, this one went off without a hitch. Rhett performed brilliantly, the band played well, the crowd loved it, and, more importantly, the folks from BNA loved it. After a couple more weeks of negotiations, Rhett was signed to BNA Nashville. So I guess we passed the audition!
What have been your audition experiences been like?