Against All Odds Live Concerts Are Coming Back This Fall

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Photo Credit:Rolling Stone

Nashville’s Opry House and Ryman, and a handful of other U.S. live music venues are opening their doors. From limited-capacity clubs to outdoor farm shows, this is how live concerts will look

risky activities
for spreading and contracting the virus. Both artists and fans spew aerosols and droplets while singing and shouting, and traditional venues — especially those indoors — can find it difficult, if not impossible, to enact social distancing and encourage air circulation.
And yet, as we enter the fall season, where fears of a second wave of the virus loom, concerts are somehow returning across the country. Live shows, with actual human beings present, are being staged at drive-ins, in parking lots, at farms, in “pods” in fields, and even indoors.
McCreey himself returned to the Ryman on September 4th to headline the venue’s first limited-capacity concert, part of the auditorium’s hybrid “Live at the Ryman” streaming series. At 125 people, it was a small fraction of the crowd McCreery entertained in March, but it was something. It was, if not exactly normal, a step in that direction. “We’ve never played a show where they’re so spread out, everybody’s wearing masks,” he says. “It was just different. Once we got out there, it was a blast. You couldn’t see their mouths smiling, but you could see their eyes were smiling.”
At a Distance
staying that way permanently
, the Ryman and a handful of other spaces, many of which have a stake in country music, are cautiously reopening their doors to varying degrees. Nashville is one of the few cities that loosened Covid restrictions to allow concerts this summer — an allowance that other metropolitan areas including New York and Los Angeles have not yet made. But even entire states are now following suit. On Wednesday, Indiana
announced
that “indoor and outdoor venues can operate at full capacity.”
All of the partial re-openings are being handled with increased safety measures — such as limited seating or audience capacity, removal of high-touch offerings like bar service and food stands, temperature checks, and mandated masks for audience members and employees — with the aim of reducing the risk of any potential Covid spread for concertgoers, showrunners, artists, and crew alike.
But all those extra measures can be costly, particularly if
third-party medical contractors
are involved. In the Ryman’s case, the business is relatively protected: As part of a larger corporation that owns several entertainment and hospitality properties, it doesn’t have to worry much about the short-term issue of cash flow, and it can direct resources and finances to exploring options like its livestream-with-audience initiative.
“We looked at it as an opportunity to leverage both technology and a modified or a hybrid model since we don’t have any ability to pack the house,” says Scott Bailey, President of Opry Entertainment Group, which owns and operates the Ryman.
“Live at the Ryman” kicked off August 14th with the singer Cam and was initially a virtual concert series, with no in-house audience. At the same time, Opry Entertainment Group was working closely with the Nashville Public Health Department to define a set of protocols that would allow them to return to hosting live audiences. One week after McCreery’s show, the audience doubled to 250 guests for another country singer, Brett Young. The next week, 400 showed up to see Old Crow Medicine Show. The concerts ran through September 18th, but Bailey says they’re open to adding more if circumstances with the pandemic remain unchanged.
“We’ve built the entire product in a way that an artist can come to us and have a turnkey solution specifically for a hybrid model that includes pay-per-view [and] production,” Bailey says.
performed one of the earliest, successful socially distanced concerts at a ballpark in Round Rock, Texas, in July.
Paul De La Cerda*
Across town, the Grand Ole Opry is gearing up to once again host fans at the 95-year-old radio show. Beginning with the October 3rd broadcast, 500 ticketed guests will be allowed inside the Opry House, the venue announced on Thursday. Physically distanced seating, mandatory masks, designated restrooms, and temperature checks are among the precautions being taken ahead of performances by Dierks Bentley, Vince Gill, Lorrie Morgan, and Terri Clark.
On October 1st, Nashville club 3rd & Lindsley will also reopen, with Eagles and Fleetwood Mac tribute bands on the schedule, and the return of Western-swing band the
Time Jumpers
‘ Monday night residency. As at the Opry, capacity limits, social distancing, and mask mandates will be in effect.
Other venues steeped in country history, like Tulsa, Oklahoma’s legendary Cain’s Ballroom, have already resumed live concerts. On August 8th, Warner Bros. Nashville artist Randall King played to a crowd of approximately 300 there — about a sixth of the room’s total capacity. Guests were stationed at bistro tables set up through the room and required to wear masks in and out of the venue.
“We asked them to social distance. They sort of did, they sort of didn’t,” Chad Rodgers, Cain’s General Manager, says. “As the show went on, they got more close to the stage than I would have liked, but the band didn’t care…. You can only control them so much. Part of it also is you need the artist to be up there and say, ‘Thanks so much for coming out, but we need you guys to please keep your distance.’”
The following weekend, Cain’s expanded its crowd to 450 for Red Dirt singer Jason Boland. Rodgers says it went “pretty well” and reports more compliance and mask use all around, despite the larger crowd. Ahead on the schedule are Cody Canada, Aaron Watson, and Sunny Sweeney, though many fall tour dates are still in flux. (Often, a show will be listed as active on a venue’s website but canceled on the artist’s site, causing some confusion about who is exactly playing where and when.)
A few hours away in Fort Worth, Texas, the cavernous honky-tonk Billy Bob’s has also re-opened. A sprawling complex of 127,000 square feet, the building can hold 6,000 people. In order to get up and running, the venue petitioned to be re-certified as a restaurant — an option that was available because of the numerous food-serving businesses operating under its roof.

“We’re high-tech redneck now, but if that gives us the opportunity to keep our doors open, it was worth the investment.”
When shows started again at Billy Bob’s with the Bellamy Brothers one night and Flatland Cavalry the next, capacity in the building was limited to 1,200, even though Texas laws would have permitted 50 percent of the total (in this case, 3,000). Guests were placed at tables of six to eight, and some general admission was allowed in spaced-out seats on a second level. The venue also invested in a thermal camera to flag anyone entering the premises whose temperature was above a certain level.
“We’re high-tech redneck now, but if that gives us the opportunity to keep our doors open, it was worth the investment,” says Keitha Spears, Managing Director of Branding and Marketing for Billy Bob’s.
For the most part, Spears said, guests were willing to comply with masking requirements and stay in their designated areas. The establishment took a hard-line stance on anyone who refused. “Some people were asked to leave because they didn’t want to wear their masks,” Spears says. “That’s not a personal opinion, that’s a Governor [Greg] Abbott mandate and that’s an executive order in Tarrant County. We’re just enforcing the rules. You don’t want a mask? Love you, mean it, come back when that’s not the rule. But you can’t be here.”
The event calendar at Billy Bob’s is surprisingly packed in the months ahead, with Riley Green playing two nights on September 24th and 25th, followed by Aaron Watson, Mike Ryan, Wade Bowen and Randy Rogers, Eli Young Band, and Robert Earl Keen, among others. Other notable Texas venues, like Gruene Hall in New Braunfels and Floore’s Country Store in Helotes, have also begun adding shows. Floore’s has Texas favorites Bowen, Watson, and Pat Green on the books, and a solo show from the Mavericks’ Raul Malo on October 30th, while Granger Smith is set for Gruene on September 26th. The country performer Smith played one of the earliest socially distanced concerts in July at a Texas minor-league ballpark — a model that the country trio
Midland
will follow on October 17th with a limited-capacity, outdoors ballpark show in Frisco, Texas.
“Covid is probably here to stay and everyone’s going to be assuming some level of risk,” says Midland’s manager Matt Graham, a founding partner of Range Media Partners and its Head of Music. “But country music is very often an outdoors experience. It’s fairs. It’s sheds. So, for many reasons, I think the country audience is wanting to come back to shows sooner. We’ve done everything that we can to be responsible and we’ll be extremely considerate of our band and our fans.”
The Texas group Flatland Cavalry played both Cain’s and Billy Bob’s, and have a handful of other shows lined up through year’s end, primarily in their home state and Oklahoma. The band wrestled with the decision to return to performing. “We stayed off the road as long as we could,” Cleto Cordero, the band’s frontman, explains, noting that they’re basically a small business with around 10 employees. “Our main concern was people’s safety and social distancing, and I thought, ‘Man, it’s gonna be hard for us to put on a good show and have fun and do our job if we’re having to worry about people doing whatever they want to.’”
So far, Cordero says, venues where Flatland Cavalry have performed have done their part to keep everyone safe, and the limited-capacity audiences generally have been willing to comply with the rules in order to hear a little live music.
“It’s in its infancy of people feeling out these shows, but I believe people want live music to return,” Cordero says. “So, it’s in everyone’s best interests to play it as by the rules as you can.”
Taking It Outside
There’s one promising alternative to tricky concert-hall shows: outdoor performances. Whether attended by fans in cars or fans seated in chalk-outlined “pods” six feet apart, these shows — which started bubbling up in the U.S. a few weeks ago as Covid cases scaled slightly back — are more familiar to artists and can offer a crowd energy that is markedly higher than, say, an indoor auditorium filled to only 25% capacity.
The Marcus King Trio perform at South Farms in Connecticut.
Sacha Lecca for Rolling Stone
Drive-in shows were the earliest live performances to appear in the pandemic era, with artists like the DJ D-Nice and country star Keith Urban
. “Our goal right now is to provide entertainment,” Scott Hayward, owner of the Tupelo Music Hall told
Rolling Stone
in May. “This is one of those situations where 100 pennies makes a dollar. We’re just gathering as many pennies as we can.” Tupelo charged $75 per car — a price that is a fraction of what it usually charges for live shows, compared by square footage occupied per person. The smattering of drive-in shows that’s been
sponsored by large corporate brands
has been able to target a wider range of price points, but also offers a bigger production budget and a different scale of experience for fans.
Live Nation, the largest concert promoter in North America, debuted a weekend of drive-in shows across Missouri, Tennessee, and Indiana in July that featured Brad Paisley, Jon Pardi, Darius Rucker, and Nelly. The company will
continue the experiment
in mid-October with shows at Atlanta’s Ameris Bank Amphitheatre from Jason Isbell, Indigo Girls, Blackberry Smoke, and Yacht Rock Revue. Isbell, who this time of year would ordinarily be hosting his annual Ryman Auditorium residency, recently announced three nights of
socially distanced shows
in October at the Caverns in Pelham, Tennessee. For $125 per person, fans will be seated in outdoor “pods” that can accommodate two, four, or six guests at a time. A fourth concert was added after the initial three quickly sold out.
Colorado’s open-air

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