Survey of COVID-19 impact on bluegrass artists

Most bluegrass bands are normally burning up the highway traveling to festivals and other venues this time of the year, but the social distancing required now due to the Covid-19 virus has brought touring to a screeching halt. In a business where many musicians teeter from paycheck to paycheck to survive, this new development in our society is leaving many worried about finances, maintaining the connection to their fans, and questioning how long this ordeal will last. 

Hit to the Pocketbook

Lorraine Jordan & Carolina Road were in Canada when President Trump announced the closing of the northern border to non-essential travel, presenting the group with a tremendous loss. 

“Our tour had just begun when we got word that we needed to come home, and also all community buildings were closing down where we would be playing,” Lorraine Jordan told Bluegrass Today. “The trip was very costly to get there. We were really betting on our CD sales to offset the cost. Our first three gigs were a great success; we sold very well. We had bought lots of extra projects and shirts.”

“We have asked The Canada Bluegrass Associations to please consider us coming back in the fall to complete our tour. Many of the fans have also asked for us to return. It had been 10 years since Carolina Road had played at some of these places. We had put a lot into our marketing and the expected crowds were going to be large.” 

The news was no better for the band when they returned to the states.

“After arriving home I received emails that Carolina Road had been cancelled or the shows had been postponed in Colorado, Missouri, South Carolina, Georgia, and North Carolina. My music venue, Lorraine’s Coffee House and Music, has been closed down except for my drive-thru. All bands have been cancelled.”

In Greg Cahill’s 45 year history with Special Consensus, he has never gone an entire month without playing one show until now. 

“We haven’t played one show in the whole month of March because of the cancellations,” Cahill says. “If the rest of April cancels, we will be out about $27,000. It’s killing us. We’re all full time musicians. This is our main gig. We all live in different states so it’s not so easy to get together and do an online concert.  I’m worried about the guys. This is our main source of income. The amount of money we’re losing makes pretty much anything else we can do pale in comparison. We’re just regular folks trying to make a living, and there just aren’t any options for us right now. We’re just flat out a lot of money.”

“Williamson Branch is completely dependent on the music we make for 100% of our income,” says Kevin Williamson. “We don’t have day jobs, spouses who work day jobs, retirement or disability income. Consequently this shut down has the potential to be devastating to our band. As of today [March 18] we have had 15 dates that have either canceled or we’ve had to cancel them.”

“The business of Lonesome River Band is at a complete standstill at this particular time,” band leader Sammy Shelor says. “As of right now, we have lost all of the 9 dates for March and April that we had on the calendar. May is when business always picks up for the outdoor shows, and we are optimistic that they will still play, but I am already getting calls from promoters. If May becomes a wash, I can see losses well into 6 figures for the band. No one knows what is beyond that.”

“We’ve had to cancel at least six dates so far, with more coming in everyday, one of those being our debut on the Grand Ole Opry,” said Bobby Powell of Carolina Blue. ”We’ve lost thousands of dollars so far, and we feel like this thing is just getting started.”

“The impact so far has been monumental,” says Jesse Iaquinto of Fireside Collective. “There is also so much uncertainty around the situation that we have almost no idea of when we will return to work. We have canceled everything through the rest of March, and most festivals in April and May are already canceling. Our album release tour, which was set to begin last weekend, is now postponed indefinitely. So far MerleFest, Albino Skunkfest Music Festival, Suwannee Spring Reunion, the Outer Banks Bluegrass Island Festival, and most gigs between now and the end of May have been canceled or postponed.”

“It is hard to say how much revenue will be lost since we can’t calculate how much merchandise we would have sold. My estimates put the number up around $20,000 so far and growing. It is certainly a challenge to our entire operation, but we are keeping our heads up and looking for ways to find positivity within this constantly evolving situation.”

“All of our public shows and private event appearances have been cancelled or postponed through April at this point,” said John Cloyd Miller of Zoe & Cloyd. “We have a UK tour scheduled for mid-May that, as of this writing, is still on but we’ll have to see what happens.”

“As a new band in our first full year, losing a huge portion of our gigs is very disheartening,” says Gina Furtado of The Gina Furtado Project. “We have canceled gigs in Wisconsin, Michigan, Virginia, Maryland, Californi,a and North Carolina. At this point I have still been doing my own booking, and I spent all winter booking a schedule we were excited about and proud of. The monetary loss is thousands. One gig in particular I am sorry to see taken off the books (with tentative postponement plans, thankfully!) is Steve Martin’s Bright Star performance in Charlotte, NC.”

Joe Mullins and his Radio Ramblers, who have lost 10 show dates so far, remain optimistic. But he says, “It will be a long recovery process, economically.” 

“Our own Southern Ohio Indoor Music Festival hurt terribly,” Mullins says. “It’s always the last weekend of March with such loyal support from hundreds of attendees. We do hope to reschedule for summer as soon as the crisis subsides. Dollywood’s Bluegrass and BBQ Festival in April and the Bluegrass Island Festival on North Carolina’s Outer Banks in May are favorites, too, that have had to be taken off the calendar. With the loss of my festival and several marquee dates for JMRR it’s tens of thousands of dollars in lost revenue.”

The Steeldrivers had wrapped up an intensive six week run of shows in support of their new CD, Bad For You, and were off the road already for a brief break when things started shutting down.

“With the exception of maybe one date, we’ve been able to get everything else shifted to later in the year or starting in the summer, says fiddler Tammy Rogers. “It’ll be interesting to see the impact because nobody at this point really knows when things are going to loosen up again. It’s just a big unknown right now.”

“All of us have been doing this long enough that I think we all know to hold back some money because you never know as a freelance musician.”

Fortunately, for the Becky Buller Band, she says they have not been impacted quite as much yet as other bands that tour more. 

“So far, band gigs and camps have been postponed into mid-June from Minnesota to the United Kingdom,” Buller said. “We don’t aim to do as many band shows as other acts because we all have our main gigs: Ned and Nate teach online; Daniel Hardin works in the bottling plant at Jack Daniels; CJ (our sound engineer) has his own studio and record label, Bee Hive Records; Prof. Dan heads up the Bluegrass, Old-Time, Country & Celtic Music Studies Program at East Tennessee State University; and I’m Romy’s mama.”

Likewise, Donna Ulisse says her tour schedule doesn’t fill up this time of the year, but she is still feeling the financial punch. 

“I do lots of external, music related work such as studio projects, producing, and vocal coaching,” she says. “I teach songwriting workshops too. We have had to delay several larger projects I am involved in at the moment due to social distancing, and as I add up the loss for our household I am worried. In the bluegrass genre I look for all the avenues I can to generate income so for me this goes beyond just touring. It’s the WHOLE business of music, and it is greatly touched by this virus.”

Michael Cleveland believes he and his band, Flamekeeper, will be okay. He says they have missed some dates, but unlike some groups, they mainly travel on weekends. 

“I never thought in a million years this would happen,” Cleveland told Bluegrass Today in a phone interview. “I hate it, but I think it needs to happen. As much as we travel, if we have to lay low for a while, I guess that’s what we need to do. As scary as it all is, we all need to hunker down and let them take care of it. Hopefully, they can figure out what’s going on and head it off before it gets too much worse.” 

Keeping the Music Going

While many musicians’ incomes and lives have been hit hard, they are still finding ways to reach out to the fans while striving to keep their heads above water financially. 

“Because the members of the band live in a 400 mile radius in 3 different states, online concerts from the full band are impossible,” says LRB’s Sammy Shelor. “Hopefully we will do some remote live feeds of Jesse Smathers and myself from here in Floyd, VA.

“I do “Daddy Daycare” for my 3-year-old son, which is a full time job in itself. It leaves me very little time to do anything in the teaching realm, and the cost of daycare elsewhere would not be feasible. The other guys in the band are finding what jobs they can to supplement and doing some teaching as well. Where there is a will, there is a way, but that will be more difficult in the weeks to come. We have two CD projects started, but there again, the distance without gigs to supplement the travel costs makes it difficult to get together to work.” 

“We’re planning a live concert online Saturday,” said Bobby Powell of Carolina Blue. “Be on the lookout for those details. We’ll be using some of this down time to finish up the album we’ve been working on. Everyone’s holding up pretty well physically; we’re all pretty healthy, so I think the scariest part is the money we’re losing by not being able to work. For most of us, music is the biggest source of our income, so we’re hurting financially.”

Williamson Branch, which has a faithful Facebook following of nearly 50,000 folks, has been tossing about the idea of online ‘pay-per-view’ concerts for some time. 

“With the help of our Facebook followers and others, we are currently planning the first of those concerts. We have also been honest with our folks by reminding them that this is our way of life, and if they are blessed by what we do, they are encouraged to donate via williamsonbranch.com/donate.”

“Teaching has been our main source of non-performance income since the cancellations started,” said John Cloyd Miller. “Thank goodness for online teaching platforms! I think the social distancing is a bit easier for the introverts in the group than for the extrovert (not naming names!). Nonetheless, we are working on new music to release this year, and are going to try to put together an online performance very soon.”

“We are certainly trying to find ways to continue bringing music to our audiences,” Jesse Iaquinto of Fireside Collective says. “We will be performing a number of virtual concerts as well as some interviews with the band and possibly some online workshops. We hope to get together and do some more rehearsing during this time, and we look forward to creating more original material as well. We are all brainstorming new ways to keep our audience engaged. That being said, there is no replacement for a live musical performance and when we can get back on the road, we will be more excited than ever to share our music with our fans and music lovers throughout the world.”

“I, personally, have started a Patreon account with banjo and songwriting lessons,” says Furtado. “We plan to host live streaming concerts with at least a few of our band members at some point very soon. Skype lessons are something we lean on heavily and have been a huge help in staying afloat financially. 

“My band members and I seem to be still adjusting to this; it’s so new and changes daily. We haven’t had the chance or heart yet to make solid plans for how we will move forward in the next few months. We’re scrambling to find creative ways to continue to survive financially as career musicians.”

“We have a new, Entertainers of the Year, DVD releasing, and our current album For the Record just became available on vinyl,” says Mullins. “We hope to have an online JMRR release party for those two very soon, just to stay engaged with fans. If it makes a few dollars, great. But staying in touch with audiences and finding a reason to still enjoy music and fellowship in any way possible is very important.”

“I am still on radio most days, and now more than even since the band is not touring,” adds Mullins. “I hear from many folks who find inspiration during my two hours daily, 1-3pm EDT, at www.realrootsradio.com. Please listen online – “Got time to breathe, got time for music!”

Donna Ulisse is grateful that during a period of social distancing in the country that she can stay connected with social media. 

“I plan on going live on Facebook several times, but it will most likely be just my husband and me doing a few new things I’m writing and performing in our living room. Two of my band members have full time day jobs and have never depended on my tour schedule for their household income, but there is one in the band that is a full time touring musician. He works so hard filling his calendar with supplemental jobs for his bank account. I feel terrible for him because all of his show dates have cancelled through the month of April. We spoke two nights ago while he was hoping to board a plane from the UK back to the USA and he was so discouraged. I’m sure he is trying to come up with “plan B” to pay bills.”

Lorraine Jordan says Carolina Road will wrap up a recording project, and she will use her music venue to help out fellow musicians. 

“We do have a state-of-the-art camera program, and we will be offering bands that are booked the opportunity to perform a live show and advertise their product for sale and a tip jar online. The shows will be on Facebook live at Lorraine’s Coffee House. They are free to watch, but we are asking for a donation for the bands”

“Honestly, I’m still reeling about it all and haven’t gotten my act together online!” Becky Buller says. “I am planning on live streaming very soon to do my bit to cheer folks up. I have been lining up as many co-writing appointments as I can, whether in real time via Skype and FaceTime, or by text, phone call, and email.”

She’ll also be busy wrapping up her new album, Distance And Time, that’s coming out in July and promoting the CD’s first single, The Barber’s Fiddle, which debuted today (March 20). 

Tammy Rogers says she and her husband Jeff King, who is out of work as a musician the next six weeks, plan to make music in their home studio.

“I said, ‘You know what? Let’s use this time to be creative,” says Rogers. “I’ve got a couple of projects in my head that I’ve been wanting to do for years. I’ve just been so busy with other things that they keep getting pushed back. There’s no excuse, for us at least, to not use the time to get some work done.  I think the creative community will stay active and will stay busy. “

Already some musicians have expressed their emotions about our country’s ordeal through songwriting including one humorous idea.

“So far, no new songs pertaining to this,” says Bobby Powell of Carolina Blue. “But I’ve been toying with an idea—“The #2 Blues” (an ode to the lack of toilet paper in the grocery store),” he says with a big smile.

“I try to see the positives in any situation, and this one is no exception,” says Furtado. “Any novel experience has awesome song potential, so I am really excited to take this experience to the banjo and notebook and see what songs are born.” 

“We haven’t written a virus song yet, but I’m sure it’s coming!” Cloyd says. “We actually just recorded a song that I wrote addressing polarization and partisanship in our country that we’re hoping to release in the coming months. I’d like to think that a crisis like the one we’re facing now might actually bring us together as a country a little more than we have been of late.”

“I’m working on four songs about it all right now!” says Buller, “[and I] just started another.”

“I write all the time and am furiously spinning this trial and tribulation in my writers mind,” says Ulisse. “What I love about bluegrass, or folk and country for that matter, is that the lots of the songs tend to document the times. I’m on it! While we stay closed in and until the storm passes, me and my husband will have lots of time to write, and write, and write.”

After the Crisis Ends

Becky Buller says she has no idea how this will impact the bluegrass music community overall once the crisis comes to an end and restrictions are lifted. 

“It’s a daunting time in the music industry in general anyway, because folks are changing the way they engage with music,” Buller said. “We’re all trying to figure out how to stay in business…and then a pandemic hits. We can’t do anything except ride it out and encourage each other along the way, with as much grace and hope as we can manage.”

“If things rebound by June, there is enough going on to survive,” says Sammy Shelor. “We are rescheduling some of the lost dates for the fall and winter. Hopefully, the festivals can carry on and survive, the bands can survive, and the music we love will continue for many decades to come.”

“Knowing the bluegrass industry and community, I feel that it will bring us all together a little bit more,” says Jesse Iaquinto of Fireside Collective. “That sounds ironic in a time of social distancing, but from what I’ve seen, the bluegrass world always rallies in times like these and helps one another out. I believe that the band will be able to rebound, but it will take time. We are most concerned with making it through the next few months with limited revenue streams but with a new album [Elements] set to be released today, we are hoping to find some ways to keep our fans engaged and keep the whole band moving forward. 

“In a time when so many people will face unprecedented challenges and difficult decisions, I hope that we can all come together and help one another get through this,”Iaquinto adds. “It’s not a time for debate or competition, but a time for action in order to make sure that everyone gets through this unforeseen challenge and that nobody is worse off than they were before this whole thing happened.”

“It will be hard to rebound from this in lots of ways,” says Jordan. “I’m trying to keep my guys working by playing at the coffee house online and recording. One problem I see is 2021 bookings. The bands that get cancelled in 2020 will more than likely be booked back in those dates, so I don’t see many new bookings coming in for 2021.” 

“I hope everyone can hang on somehow, but the reality is…it will be challenging to stay in this line of work when there is no work to be had,” Furtado says. “My band is brand new, and thanks to this I had saved up a significant amount of money to help get it started, imagining the worst case scenarios and preparing for those (well, maybe I didn’t imagine the WORST case scenarios!). I anticipate continuing on after this subsides with no trouble, and for that I am grateful.”

“Truth be told, there’ll probably be some bands that won’t be able to bounce back,” admits Powell, “but Carolina Blue should be ok. We’ve got a great team working hard for us every day, and our finances are pretty stable. We’re ready to get right back out on the road as soon as we’re able!”

“I hope some stuff gets rescheduled, but everybody’s in the same boat, so it’s difficult,” says Cahill. 

“There is no doubt that this is going to hurt not only bands and venues but agents, managers, sound engineers, and pretty much everyone in the service industry as a whole, says Cloyd. “We’re all going to feel the sting for some time to come, and we’re going to have to support each other. But the bluegrass family and the industry around it is strong, and we’ll get through this. I know we’re all itching to get back out there.”

“If this situation were to continue into the summer it could be devastating to many of the, already fragile, small festivals that many groups play on a consistent basis, says Kevin of Williamson Branch. “This will be a tough year for our band. We’re very thankful that last year, and the beginning of this year, were good for us, but riding out this storm depends largely on how long it lasts.” 

“It will be challenging, but we will find a way to overcome,” says Mullins. “I think the next time we get to be at a live concert or festival it will sound even sweeter.” 

“I keep thinking about what it’s going to be like when this is all over,” says Cleveland. “You know people are going to want to get out and hear some music then. “

“I do think that once the restrictions are lifted I think everything is going to come back in a really strong way,” says Rogers. “I think people will be ready to get out of their houses,” she adds, laughing, “and wanting to pick up their lives and support music and get out to the festivals and venues. I think it’s just a momentary set back.”

“Bluegrass is a true community; we look out for one another,” says Ulisse. So, I hurt for the hard working promoters who have had to cancel festivals and shows, for the musicians who depend on touring, for the artists who are losing revenue because of cancelled tours, and who have to put new recording projects on hold as we steer through these troubled waters, for the engineers and studio owners who are dealing with cancellations, for the record companies who have lots of dollars tied up in artists who can’t tour and sell their product. I’m leaving so many aspects of the music business out, but this is a real domino effect, and we are all concerned with what the outcome might look like when our country comes out of this.”

“We have always known that music is a calling placed on us by God,” says Kevin Williamson. “We’re not a ‘Gospel group,’ but we are people who try to live by faith both on and off stage. God has provided for our livelihood exclusively through music for over 20 years. We’ve never missed a meal or a house payment. We are confident that he will continue to take care of us. We are praying that he will provide for us via the music that we love, but if he chooses a different path for us, we will follow his direction. We are also praying for so many of our friends who are neck-deep in the music. We love you all.”

“My biggest concern is our world as we know it. It could very well change drastically in a very short time,” says Shelor. “My prayers are for everyone, whether I know you or not, to be safe and weather the struggles with faith and strength.”

“Most of us are afraid for many reasons,” adds Ulisse. “Of course there is the possibility that we or someone we know and love will come down with the virus. Will we be able to financially ride this wild rollercoaster? What will the country look like when the dust settles? One thing I know in this time of unknowns is that music will survive and thrive again someday. A song connects us all.”

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About the Author

Bill Conger

Bill Conger has been a music journalist for 23 years for a variety of TV, radio, print, and websites including TNN, CMT, CMT.com, GACTV.com, Country Music Today, Bluegrass Unlimited, and www.songwriteruniverse.com. He is currently writing a biography on the life of Bobby Osborne.