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AmericanaFest Confirms Covid-19 Checks, Growing A Trend

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With its announcement Monday that AmericanaFest 2021 will require proof of full Covid-19 vaccination or a recent Covid test for entry into its events, the Americana Music Association became merely the latest show promoter in the nation to do so. With a few exceptions, festivals and concerts are closing their doors to the unvaccinated and taking some heat for policies they recognize as essential for public health and the well-being of staff, bands and fans.

“The safety of our community including attendees, artists, speakers, partners, volunteers and staff for AMERICANAFEST 2021 and the Americana Honors & Awards is our top priority,” said the AMA in a statement. The event will require proof of full vaccination, with the final dose at least 14 days prior to Sept. 22, or a negative COVID-19 test within 72 hours. The association is still working on the logistics of the policy and whether it will allow a single check to cover all entries.

“We were trying to create a commonality among all the participants that was as safe as possible,” Jed Hilly, executive director of the AMA told WMOT in describing a lengthy and inclusive process. “And I feel really good about it, because we were asking questions and listening to what people were saying. The great majority of people were saying there needs to be some safety protocol.”

The policy applies to showcases at official AMA venues, panels at the central Westin Hotel and the Ryman Auditorium Honors & Awards show.

“It was not a decision that we came to lightly,” Hilly added, but he said it was made somewhat easier by the trends in the industry and vaccine checks announced by Bonnaroo, Lollapalooza and major promotion company AEG Presents. Also in the mix are artists such as Jason Isbell alerting all of his upcoming venues that he and his crew would only go forward with shows that had vaccine checks. AmericanaFest saw one venue - The Station Inn - withdraw from its showcase lineup for the first time in twenty years. Its bands will be moved to One, a club in the Cannery Row complex. Station Inn manager Joshua Ulbrich told WMOT that the club's attorney believed checking patrons for vaccine status "could open us up, could open any of these people up, to liability."

The wider concert industry seems to disagree with that. “It appears that the future of live events, at least in the short term, is for those that are vaccinated and/or can provide proof of a negative Covid test,” said Chris Cobb, owner of The Exit/In and part of a coalition of Nashville venues that issued a vaccine policy on August 10. “The smaller venues and promoters certainly led the way, but at this point we’re seeing this from the top down.”

The International Bluegrass Music Association announced last week that it will require proof of vaccination and indoor masking for all of its upcoming World of Bluegrass activities in Raleigh, NC. With a more conservative member base than Americana, the association's Facebook update generated more than 600 comments, with constituencies strongly backing and strongly opposing the policy. IBMA indicated the decision by its board was unanimous. The mask mandate comes from Wake County, NC and would have been in effect anyway.

One significant exception to the festival trend is Bristol Rhythm & Roots, which is coming up Sept. 10-12. That street-based festival won’t be checking visitors’ vaccine history, because it doesn't have gates and encompasses dozens of private businesses along State Street. Yet the festival has paid a price in talent. Isbell and fellow headliner Yola, plus festival veteran and local breakout artist Morgan Wade all withdrew from the lineup. The festival was hoping to announce new artists early this week.

“We really struggled with the decision,” said Bristol Executive Director Leah Ross. “We are on city streets. And we felt like even if we were able to make someone show us their vaccine card or a negative test, we have a compromised footprint. We have city workers and our downtown businesses and people that own apartments. We don’t have the authority to do that.”

Another element of AmericanaFest’s Covid safety measures has been to downsize its annual conference significantly from its 2019 edition, the last fest held before Covid shut it down entirely in 2020. Instead of 21 official showcase venues, there will be about a dozen, with 100 fewer showcasing bands. The number of panels was reduced from roughly 60 to 40. And with an increased price for general admission passes to shows without conference registration, Hilly projects the overall crowd will be smaller than usual.

Implementation of vaccine “passports” at the door of nightclub shows has been complicated, Chris Cobb says, because vaccine cards are not standardized and were filled in irregularly by medical personnel. “I hope that we can find some kind of technological solution to help us with this,” he said.

See full information and FAQ for the 2021 AmericanaFest here.

Craig Havighurst is WMOT's music news producer and host of The String, a show featuring conversations on culture, media and American music. New episodes of The String air on WMOT 89.5 in Middle Tennessee on Mondays at 8 pm, repeating Sundays at 7 am. Twitter and Instagram: @chavighurst.