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Music City Begins To Hear Applause As Live Performace Warily Returns

Marla Keown for Dee's
Dee's Country Lounge in Madison, hosting Tommy Womack Thursday, is among the Nashville venues reopening with live music and limited crowds.

This Thursday night, Tommy Womack will have the chance to feel somewhat in his element for the first time in months. “It’s my first show not on a screen since February and my first band show since February,” he says. “I’m looking forward to being on stage with a band and feeling a rock and roll beat.” That stage is at Dee’s Country Cocktail Lounge in Madison, and the ticketed show is just one part of the tentative return of live music to Nashville.

Dee’s shut down in March like every other music venue as fear of community spread of Covid-19 gripped the nation. Last weekend saw Dee’s hosted its first shows with a small seated audience, including dates by the East Nash Grass bluegrass band and country songwriter Joshua Hedley. Those and future shows are also streamed on the web as a way to extend the reach of the artists and their fund-raising possibilities.

Dee’s co-owner Daniel Walker tells WMOT his team is following the guidance of Mayor John Cooper’s phased Roadmap For Reopening Nashville. The venues described in this report are categorizing themselves as restaurants rather than bars, which won’t be open until Phase 3 begins in the coming weeks. “We’re trying to be really careful and make everybody comfortable,” Walker said. “We’ve got our tables spaced out. And if I count up all the seats, we can probably fit about 50 people. That’s still well below our capacity.”

Indeed, they are for now capping ticket sales at 30 for the Womack show and others, charging a $10 cover to support the artist and the club while discouraging casual visitors who aren’t ready to participate in mask wearing and social distancing. “It’s not enough for the long term, but any revenue is good revenue,” Walker says.

Some music spots are jolting back to pre-pandemic operations with much less care, producing a now-infamous weekend scene at Kid Rock’s bar downtown, where hundreds of unmasked revelers were shoulder to shoulder in violation of the city’s rules. The club and more than a dozen other restaurants and bars were cited by the Metro Public Health Department. Music City’s venues for roots music and songwriters appear to be opening more cautiously and deliberately.

Friday will mark the return of live music with crowds to 3rd and Lindsley, the nearly 30-year-old club in the SoBro district. Owner Ron Brice issued a statement on June 8 announcing plans to re-open while being “dedicated to creating an environment safe for our guests, artists and staff.” A video at the club’s Facebook page outlines procedures for entry, spaced-out table seating and exit through several fire doors. Brice says the venue will look to support long-time favorites as it eases back: “We plan on booking local talent to perform intimate seated events with reduced seating capacity, in a series of residencies, multiple-night runs and the like – two shows per night in some cases – as well as continuing and adjusting our previous model of performances.”

The Station Inn renewed webcasting of live bands in the famous bluegrass venue without an audience earlier in June. On Thursday they will welcome seated patrons for a show with Jed Clark, followed by Sheriff Scott & The Deputies on Friday and a calendar thereafter rapidly filling in. The club announced on Monday that it will make 10 tables available for parties up to eight people. They’ll continue to webcast over its dedicated Station Inn TV platform, which marketing manager Jeff Brown says has been a key source of revenue for the club during its prolonged closure. “I’m really glad for the fan base,” he says. “After the first two weeks (of webcasting) we didn’t have to ask ourselves the question ‘are we going to make it?’”  

Mike Simon, talent booker for Nashville’s City Winerysays the club is deep in preparation for a staged reopening. Food service in the restaurant along with local artists playing on an outdoor stage on the adjacent ground floor patio will begin Friday. Live shows in the main room will launch on July 8, with artist announcements coming as soon as tomorrow. City Winery will seat no more than 120 people at spread-out tables, with extensive accommodations to keep patrons from getting bottlenecked on entrance or exit. “We’ve got a pretty robust plan that I feel good about,” Simon said. “Nashville will be kind of the beta test for the City Winery (chain). We’re going above and beyond and making sure people are comfortable coming in.”

Meanwhile the four venues in the complex at Cannery Row are moving slower, according to owner Todd Ohlhauser. In comparing the Mercy Lounge floor layout to 3rd & Lindsley, he said “I just don’t see us being able to do a seated show the way they could. We don’t have the balcony. You’ve got landings and more of a narrow hallway. We’ve looked at it and said let’s wait a while. If we could do it, it would be in the Cannery with much more room to spread out. We want to do it in the safest manner possible.”

None of this implies that music venues in Nashville or the nation at large are remotely out of harm’s way. Ohlhauser notes that under Nashville’s plans or any scenario they’d want to open up under, potential revenue is cut at least in half while personnel costs often increase. “If you have fraction of the tickets you can sell but your overhead is doubling, it’s cheaper to stay closed unfortunately.”

Craig Havighurst is WMOT's editorial director and host of The String, a weekly interview show airing Mondays at 8 pm, repeating Sundays at 7 am. He also co-hosts The Old Fashioned on Saturdays at 9 am and Tuesdays at 8 pm. Threads and Instagram: @chavighurst. Email: craig@wmot.org