Online Barn Dances And Venmo Jamborees: Music City Takes Its Song To The Web

Mar 23, 2020

In the early days of radio, announcers and hosts would regularly offer special greetings to “the shut-ins” among their audience, those housebound with infirmities and illness for whom radio was a vital companion and mental health care. Thanks to Covid-19, we’re all shut-ins now, and over recent days, Nashville’s century-old tradition of broadcasting live music to reach the people where they are rose up out of calamity and went online. (This story has been updated.)

From locales as diverse as a shut-down Lower Broadway, the stage of the Grand Ole Opry and private homes, the webcast fund-raiser rapidly became a new normal, with results that were artistic, cathartic and financial. Some were individuals playing into their own phone cameras and soliciting donations via Venmo and Paypal. Some were participating in virtual festivals, like the multi-day Shut-In & Sing, co-created by former Nashvillian radio host and journalist Kelly McCartney and artist Natalia Zukerman, featuring artists from in and out of town playing ticketed shows over the suddenly in-demand StageIt.com platform. Some in the indie music business put together professionally produced audio/video stages to give viewers a more polished experience in exchange for their attention and contributions. 

But in this epidemic, nothing is easy or stable. On Sunday, a new order by Mayor John Cooper for non-essential businesses to close for two weeks has put some of the more ambitious webcasts on hold for the foreseeable future. This account follows some of those hastily arranged productions and how they’re adjusting.

Nashville's Fireball Mail played to the online audience from an empty Station Inn on Friday. Live shows there have been suspended for the time being on orders from the Mayor's office.

Early last week, the iconic bluegrass venue The Station Inn closed to the public and then within hours announced it would take to the web with a publicly available version of its year-old Station Inn TV, a subscription-based webcast platform. The club hired a crew to give the interior of the club the deepest sterilization cleaning it had ever had and then went live on Tuesday night with Val Storey, Mike Rogers and friends. The show raised more than $2,100 over GoFundMe.com, a good indication that by reaching thousands of viewers worldwide, these sets might offer more than token relief to artists who’ve lost gigs and tours.

Jeff Brown, marketing director for the Station Inn and manager of Station Inn TV was at the club on Saturday night helping the band Fireball Mail set up for its webcast. “As soon as we got to the point where we realized that we needed to shut down and close the doors, we started brainstorming,” Brown said. “We’ve got this amazing opportunity that musicians can utilize. So how do we do this? How do we make this work and do something good for these guys who have been keeping this place open for forty years?”

Fireball Mail’s lead singer Brad Bulla said his Nashville-based band plays the Station Inn about every two months and he’s glad to keep that streak alive, even to an empty club. “This surprised everybody, but I think what it’s done and is doing for the music community is kind of taking it back to the very simple level – people sitting around in their living rooms," he said.

Brown and Station Inn owner J.T. Gray had already contemplated the kind of business shut-down that came on Sunday. “We’re kicking off the contingency plan,” Brown told WMOT yesterday. That means picking a show from the archives for a webcast five nights a week. Three will be limited to paying Station Inn TV subscribers and two will go out free to the public over Facebook. The fund-raisers now will be dedicated to the Station Inn itself, whose survival may depend on community support if the shutdown goes for weeks.

Update: On Tuesday afternoon, the Station Inn announced a return to live, closed-door programming, including the following statement: "After research and verification from the city, The Station Inn has decided to continue broadcasting live music from a closed venue, free to the public, effective as soon as possible. The Station Inn is in complete accordance with the Safer at Home Order and is taking more precautions than required to ensure the safety and protection of the performers and staff present."

The tip bucket was entirely virtual for John England, a Robert's Western World regular, playing solo on Friday night.

On Friday night, just one week after some honky tonks took heat nationally for staying open and crowded as the Covid-19 epidemic spread, Lower Broadway's neon-lit streetscape was eerily quiet. Most music venues were shuttered with barstools turned upside down on tables. But Robert’s Western World took to the internet with a simple one-camera arrangement capturing troubadours and bands on the famous stage, with a skeleton crew providing a scattering of applause. John England, veteran leader of the band The Western Swingers, sang country classics solo to an invisible audience while the staff held up a sign pointing viewers to England’s online tip jar.

“I make my living playing and singing on gigs, local gigs mostly,” he said after wrapping up and turning the stage over to Jesse Lee Jones and Brazilbilly. “I had eight gigs booked this week, and they’re all cancelled. The only work I’ve got is coming from Robert’s Western World and these live streams this week, so I’m mighty grateful.”

England is a bright-eyed optimist who’s kept early 20th century country music alive and hopping in the 21st century. That passion and his Depression Era-aged parents have given him some perspective on current events, he said. “Heck the fiddler in our band is 91,” he said, referring to the feisty Gene “Pappy” Meritts. “So those folks experienced the Great Depression and there’s a kind of unity they have from going through this trial together. This could be the trial that our generation goes through. I mean we’ll see what happens. It may not be as bad as we dread. Everybody’s in the same boat. We’re all kind of in shock and waiting to see where the dust is going to fall.”

Update: Robert's has paused in-house performances but artists are taking turns streaming from home via the honky tonk's web outlets. 

Lindsay Lou (right) and her trio set up at an East Nashville photography studio with a full audio/video production on Friday night.

Also Friday, one of the city’s more elaborate multi-camera productions was assembled in a private photography studio belonging to rock and roll photographer Michael Weintrob. He lost his near term job shooting Bluegrass Underground and a full ten days of festival exhibition during the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival in April. And he saw his musician friends suddenly put in a dire spot with no income. He collaborated with audio engineer Greg Burns to set up a well-lit full audio production called Instrumenthead Live, after Weintrob’s noted musician portrait series.

“Hopefully we’re going to be streaming some bigger acts, doing pay per view, where these musicians will be able to make some money while they’re off the road, because we eat from the same table,” Weintrob said. “Luckily, I have this space and I’ve been working with these musicians for years. I know a lot of these sidemen and a lot of these musicians who are touring, so I wanted to have the opportunity to give back to the community that’s supported me so well.”

The set-up’s shakedown gig was with acoustic Americana songwriter Lindsay Lou, performing in her usual trio with bassist PJ George and her husband Josh Rilko. Lou said her household’s income for the next month evaporated when Rilko learned the tour he was to play on as a sideman was nixed. “Everybody’s lives have just shifted so much,” she said between sound check and the online show. “Everybody’s home. There’s a persistent feeling of doom that is just in the air. And all of us are doing our best to maintain and realize that we’re all still okay.”

The songwriter had been performing virtually through Instagram for some time just to keep in touch during routine time off the road. She was glad to be stepping up her production values for this particular set. “But at the end of the day, it’s just act of making music,” she said “The soul is the part that carries through even on all of these informal (webcasts). I think it still has an impact and is a powerful thing that all these artists are basically taking to the virtual streets and saying ‘we can’t be stopped.’ We are going to continue on.”

That is, until Monday, when Weintrob put a hold on the webcasts to comply with the city order.

The author's at-home view of Saturday night's Grand Ole Opry webcast.

The most globally visible and arguably historic webcast of this weekend though came from the institution that’s been broadcasting through wars, social unrest and the Great Depression itself, the Grand Ole Opry. On Saturday evening, Marty Stuart, Vince Gill and Brad Paisley took to the stage of the empty Opry House on stools ten feet apart to do a traditional Nashville songwriters-in-the-round format show, with emcee Bill Cody at the nearby podium. It was a moving, chill-bump performance that met the moment in every way.

“Country music excels at times like these,” said Paisley. Between songs, he offered “a shout out to those working overtime tonight,” especially health care workers. “To those out there on the front lines of this war, God bless you. We’re going to keep playing music for you one way or another.” The three artists paid tribute to Kenny Rogers, whose voice had been stilled only hours before, and spoke to a country on edge. Gill performed his emotionally explosive “Go Rest High On That Mountain,” and Marty Start played a historic guitar owned by Jimmie Rogers, offering “Hobo’s Prayer” with its lyric "everything out here ain't what it seems/And when you're down to nothing/ Just go ahead and dream.”

Tens of thousands of people were locked in to the live show over Facebook alone, with more feeds going out over YouTube, WSM radio and the Opry’s new Circle Network of Gray TV stations.

Update: The Opry will continue its webcasts. Vince Gill, Amy Grant, Jenny Gill and Corrina Grant Gill will perform from the Opry stage on Saturday, March 28 at 7p CT. The show will be broadcast live on Circle, and on Gray TV stations and other TV affiliates in addition to a companion live stream on Circle’s Facebook and YouTube.