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On The String: Musicians On A Year Of Stasis, Sacrifice And Unexpected Rewards

It’s hard to truly recall and inhabit the uncertainty and anxiety of March 2020 when the world changed almost overnight. Covid-19 affected everyone, but in different ways for differently situated people. Musicians know they’re not like the front-line health workers or essential food packers who took the pandemic on like a war, but they did see their industry collapse, and they had to orient themselves to a new normal.

With a year’s hindsight and strong reasons to believe that vaccinations have brought hope for a live music revival later this year, artists can take stock of the unforgettable, unprecedented year of Covid. That’s what I hoped to chronicle in this special episode of The String.

Many in music who were slammed by Covid aren’t represented here - venues and their workers, booking agents, sound and light companies, record stores and more. They are not forgotten. But performing musicians are at the heart of our culture and they have particular stories to tell. So that’s what Episode #163 is about. Here’s who you will hear in the hour:

Clockwise from upper left: Kyshona, The Wild Ponies, Sarah Jarosz, Rob Ickes, Robert Geer, and Jill Andrews.

We featured Kyshona Armstrong recently as one of Nashville’s breakout artists of 2020 despite being unable to tour. I sought her out again because she has background in music therapy and mental health, so she has an informed perspective on the variety of ways her colleagues and friends were processing the frustration and existential issues of being performers without stages. She revived her music therapy expertise to help others through a tough time.

Tim Easton is a well-traveled troubadour who's inordinately adept at roots rock and roll and solo acoustic folk blues. He spoke for artists who enjoyed uninterrupted time with kids, in his case a ten-year-old girl. They're closer than ever he says. And while he's eager to return to the road, he's grateful for the big pause, a common theme.

Jill Andrews was the last artist I interviewed before the clampdown, and much of our talk last March, before and after we rolled tape (at the gorgeous woodsy home she shares with her new husband and three growing kids), was about the mysterious, impending coronavirus. After a few months of make-work home projects and family time, her husband prompted her to act on an idea she'd been batting around - an RV-based "Outdoor Spaces And Covered Faces" tour of privately booked shows. The whole family went on an all-American road trip, with more dates set for this spring.

Robert Greer is the powerhouse vocalist, guitar player and songwriter in the Asheville, NC bluegrass band Town Mountain. He told me that 2020 started with anger and frustration but it gelled into relief at being away from the grind of the road. He took a delivery driving job. He quit smoking and got married in October. Music stayed central though, and his band assembled in Asheville to record the album intended to be their calling card in 2021. Listen to find out what happened.

Molly Tuttle, ferocious flatpicker and gentle pop-grass singer songwriter, was one of a number of artists who felt pressure, internal if not external, to be her best self, to be abundantly creative. Letting go of that was harder than letting go of touring, she said. She embraced technology, from Zoom co-writing sessions (new for her), online shows and a new Patreon program. Creatively though, her big event was a home-made album of cover songs called ...but i’d rather be with you.

Rob Ickes, Olympian dobro player and half of his duo with Trey Hensley, told me of his gratitude at having had enough years of experience and prosperity in bluegrass (yes, that’s a thing) that he and his wife were never afraid for their finances. "I do feel sorry for new musicians who are just getting started,” he said. His moves forward focused on developing his own online teaching platform, BigMusicTent.com. It was an already thriving business space that blew up in 2020, and Ickes says it kept his connections to fans and fellow musicians lively.

Jerry Pentecost, Molly Tuttle, Suzanne Santo, Tim Easton and Garrison Starr

Doug and Telisha Williams, who play as the Wild Ponies, simply had to be in this hour because they had one of the most dramatic stories to tell about their 2020 Plan B that I've heard. It involves a food truck and a fire, so that's all I'm going to tell you. They're brilliant folk performers and they tell a story like the charming couple that they are. 

Garrison Star is a Mississippi native based in L.A. with long history with Nashville. Most of her work in recent years has been as a professional songwriter based out of her home studio, so there were no big changes there. But she said she’s had more welcome time with her wife and dog. And she spent time prepping the January 2021 release of Girl I Used To Be, arguably her most important album to date.

Covid compelled acoustic star Sarah Jarosz to move out of her beloved New York City, where she's been a leading national artist, a partner in the music of the Live From Here radio show and member of the brilliant I'm With Her trio. She came to Nashville on a trial basis and then made it official, moving out of her apartment and in with her partner, the bass player Jeff Picker. The album she released in mid 2020 just won the Best Americana Album Grammy Award.

Suzanne Santo also moved, from L.A. to Austin, a classic roots musician transition. While the songwriter (and founder of HoneyHoney) was a natural for California, with modeling and acting under her belt, she sounded downright giddy from her new Austin home. She's transitioning from a long stint touring in the road band for Hozier back to recording and touring on her own, and she says the year treated her very well.

Jerry Pentecost spoke for the working instrumentalists. The Nashville native has been taking every gig in every genre, as you're supposed to, for a couple decades and worked his way into elite status in Americana. He’s been music director on tour for Amanda Shires, and in 2019, he started a full time job with Old Crow Medicine Show. He had to get resourceful, especially with twins on the way. He DJ'd online, taught lessons online, repaired things in the real world and stayed in constant motion. 

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