The Show Must Go On

By Matt Wickstrom, Smiley Pete

Dark Moon Hollow performs to an empty crowd at Cosmic Charlie’s. Photo by Sarah Cahill

LEXINGTON, Ky. — While all of us have been affected in some way by the COVID-19 pandemic, musical artists and owners/employees of the venues that host them are among those who are certainly feeling a strain – and in many cases, an abrupt halt – to their day-to-day lives and revenue streams.

As they’ve been forced to temporarily shutter their doors to dining and drinking in, many area bars and venues have found creative ways to serve their customers and maintain at least somewhat of a revenue stream. Some have utilized a blend of existing licensing and new temporary allowances granted by Senate Bill 150, an executive order signed by Governor Beshear designed in response to COVID-19, to offer “curbsides sales” of packaged alcohol. Other venues have funneled their creative efforts into hosting streaming online performances in place of their regularly scheduled shows, a format that has allowed many artists to keep a connection with their audiences and creative output, while raising some tips as well.

With various projections anticipating that live music may be one of the last types of gatherings to be permitted again after COVID-19 is under control, we turned to some of Central Kentucky’s creative minds to see how they’re handling their time in quarantine.

Among the area artists hit hard by shutdowns caused by the COVID-19 pandemic is Chelsea Adams. While the singer-songwriter only performs a handful of shows per month, she also worked full-time as a hairstylist and part-time as a bartender at Al’s Bar, all of which have come to a near complete stop amid the shutdown. To make up for the lack of work, Adams has participated in two livestream festivals over the past couple of months, and has also picked up shifts at “Al’s Beer Store.” The temporarily rebranded bar and venue now operates as a carryout store on most weeknights, selling packaged beers, T-shirts and coozies, with revenue split between the bar and its employees. Adams is also taking the time to focus on herself, making sure both her mind and body are healthy during her time in quarantine.

“I have struggled with anxiety and depression since I was a kid,” said Adams. “Now that work is out of the picture for the time being, I am making intentional decisions to stay on top of daily activities, self-discovery and of course, FaceTiming my family and friends as much as I can.”

Another artist losing out on both shows and her daily jobs is songwriter Abby Hamilton, who had been working two jobs while also gigging two or three nights per week prior to the outbreak. Despite the stress of it all, Hamilton says she has enjoyed the change of pace, using the time to read, do yard work, FaceTime her grandmothers and find the perfect sangria recipe, while also hosting the occasional livestream concert.

“For the first time in a long time, I’ve had the space to accept the way things are,” said Hamilton. “I’m actively choosing to get my mind and my body right instead of running it into the ground as I had been. Now I’m allowing myself to get comfortable with nothing to do. It’s been hard, but it’s the peace I’ve needed.”

One of the venues Hamilton frequents the most is The Burl, which has completely ceased operations during the shutdown. According to co-owner Cannon Armstrong, the venue, which had to delay the opening of a new food kitchen originally slated for early April, is exploring all government options to provide relief for its employees. In March, the venue co-presented a weeklong livestream “festival” called Social Distance Fest, along with co-organizers Master Musicians Festival and local act Buck the Taxidermist. The virtual event featured artists live-streaming from their own homes throughout the week, accepting tips on Venmo to aid artists as well as the Burl’s bar and front-of-house staff. 

“We just do not know when the music will start back up,” said Armstrong. “Tours are pushing back until July and August, if not later, for some bigger acts, so that means it’s going to be an unusual summer. However, with the great local bands we have here and regional folks we’re gonna make it a party when this thing passes and we’re on the other side.”

For songwriter and teacher Eric Bolander, the time away from work has allowed him to spend more time at home with his family. A full-time art teacher at Henry Clay High School as well as a working musician, Bolander had been earning an estimated 15-20 percent of his income from music prior to the shutdown, performing close to 100 shows yearly. With shows currently on hold, Bolander has had to delay the planned release of a new single and new merchandise. Among the thwarted plans were a run of midwest shows in late March and early April, beginning with an after-party for Tyler Childers and Sturgill Simpson in Kansas City, Missouri, along with Childers’ manager Kyle Crownover. However, Bolander has kept the music alive with a series of livestream concerts from Austin City Saloon in Corbin and Cosmic Charlie’s and Manchester Music Hall in Lexington, and he also plans to release a new song soon. 

As much as he loves touring and performing live, Bolander admitted that the extra time at home with his wife and young daughter has been a refreshing change.

“Though it is a stressful time, I’ve always been a person who has dealt with stress and anxiety really well,” said Bolander. “My heart goes out to those who are struggling. Keeping in touch through messages and sharing goofy memes is usually how my friends and bandmates keep in touch, so this situation has definitely amped up the meme sharing. Staying silly and using humor has always been my coping skill for tough times.”

As for Manchester Music Hall, the venue has had to lay off all of its staff and cancel all events through June due to the pandemic. Owner Adam Hatton says that the venue has currently suspended all offers in booking talent for the remainder of the year, as its owners await more updates regarding COVID-19. 

“This has flipped the music industry upside down as a whole,” said Hatton. “What scares us is we do not yet know what we are fighting. When will it end? What happens when we do come back? Will our market be oversaturated? Will people spend money on going out and tickets? Will people even want to gather in crowds?”

For Grayson Jenkins, who transitioned into becoming a full-time musician after leaving his job at the University of Kentucky in 2017, the gut punch of losing income and cancelling shows was lessened by the recent addition in February of a remote, part-time job working from his computer. However, with Jenkins regularly performing eight to 10 shows per month, the financial hit doesn’t go unnoticed. According to Jenkins, the time off has given him the opportunity to simplify his routine, focusing more on taking care of himself, checking in on family and friends and stepping back from the business side of music – a perspective he hopes will stick after these uncertain times pass.

“Like most folks, I have had my bad days during this whole ordeal,” said Jenkins. “The first week was pretty hard. I was trying to figure out finances and ‘what-ifs,’ and letting my mind sit on every negative possibility imaginable. I finally had to take a step back and simplify things. I feel lucky to have my health and the time to play music whenever I want.”

One of Jenkins’ regular performance spots was the Chevy Chase Inn, Lexington’s oldest bar. According to owner Kevin Heathcoat, the bar has set up a virtual “tip jar” to help support bar staff put out of work by the shutdown, along with offering them shifts at the bar’s weekly inventory liquidation sales, dubbed “Chevy Chase Inn & Out,” as well as at the neighboring restaurant Bourbon n’ Toulouse, another of Heathcoat’s businesses. The bar has enacted a handful of creative fundraising ideas, including bourbon bottle raffles with 100 percent of the proceeds going to unemployed bartenders, and selling bloody mary kits, pre-packaged food and $30 “mystery bags,” which each contain a $25 Chevy Chase Inn gift card and random “surprise” bottle of liquor. According to Heathcoat, the next phase of the bar’s “Prohibition 2.0” plans include putting together a virtual stage to support Jenkins and the other artists who frequently play the bar.

“As a small business owner, this has been a very tough experience for many reasons, but one of the tougher parts is how dark and quiet the Chevy Chase Inn is every time I open the doors,” said Heathcoat. “I’m so used to walking into the oldest bar in Lexington and seeing intoxicating smiles and hearing amazing live music or walking in the morning after and smelling 86 years of regret and bad decisions. The silence I hear is absolutely deafening.”

Another full-time musician who’s touring schedule has come to a halt during the pandemic is Wes Smith. Since transitioning to a full-time musician nearly three years ago, Smith had been performing 12-15 shows per month, solo and with Brother Smith, the project he co-founded with his brother Aaron. Amidst the slew of canceled upcoming shows, Smith says he realizes how much he’d taken for granted prior to the world going on lockdown.

“I’ve really struggled for many days during the quarantine, but the issues I was and am currently dealing with are not a product of quarantine – they were just drawn out because of it,” said Smith. “I love the chaos and freedoms that come with playing and traveling to shows and spending time in a multitude of places, to a fault. I’m sad because it shouldn’t have taken a global crisis for me to step back and take a look around. I miss my family and my friends; I miss the physical presence of the music community that has done and continues to bring people so much hope from a distance.”

One of the local spots where Smith regularly performs in Lexington is The Twisted Cork, a quaint liquor store and music venue on the city’s south side, where you could typically find him on the first Wednesday of every month. While the store is still legally allowed to have customers inside, it has opted to exclusively utilize its drive-thru window to serve customers, out of concern for the safety of its staff.

One Lexington band poised for a breakout summer prior to the COVID-19 outbreak was Dark Moon Hollow, a five-piece bluegrass troupe who recently won a spot on the lineup for the well-attended Illinois music festival Summer Camp during a “Battle of the Bands” contest that took place at Cosmic Charlie’s in March. Originally scheduled to take place in May, the festival has since been postponed to August – with projections for summer festivals altogether remaining unclear. The band has also had to put a hold on the recording of their debut album, which it was slated to begin in March and April. 

While all of the band’s members have other jobs to help keep them financially afloat, the hit from the virus is substantial nonetheless – and, according to guitarist Trey Reinhart, has re-enforced to the band that they want nothing more than to play music together.

“It was great getting to get back together with the guys a few weeks ago for our first COVIDcast,” said Reinhart, referring to a livestream show recorded at Cosmic Charlie’s in April. “Everything with the virus has made me realize just how much I need music as an outlet and how grateful I am to even have the option to play.”

Dark Moon Hollow has since taken part in a second livestream at Cosmic Charlie’s as well. Spearheaded by the venue’s operations manager and talent buyer Kayti McMyermick and  her husband Eric, the COVIDcasts began on March 15 as a means for Cosmic Charlie’s to regain some money from cancelled shows to help pay their bills and support staff during the shutdown. According to McMyermick, while the revenue earned from the livestreams, which is split between venue staff and the artists, doesn’t come close to what the venue typically brings in from a show, it has been enough for them to be able to open back up when the virus subsides – although in the time being none of the staff are getting paid.

Another local artist and family man impacted by COVID-19 has been Richard Spaulding, a hip hop artists better known as Devine Carama. A powerful voice of activism and compassion in the community, Spaulding earned roughly 30 percent of his income through music prior to the pandemic, with his remaining income coming from other elements of his event-related business Kingtucky LLC, which facilitates hip-hop workshops for children, youth motivational speaking and more. Since the shutdown, Spaulding has hosted an online hip-hop workshop and performed via a livestream COVIDcast show at Cosmic Charile’s, with another scheduled for  May 6. The artist, who is near finished recording his new album “Worshiping in the Wilderness,” anticipates a personal loss of $7,000-$10,000 over the next four months due to COVID-19.

“Being the sole financial provider in my household, all the cancellations and depleted income caused me to worry early on,” said Spaulding. “However, our strong faith in God has helped us to find peace mentally as we wait for unemployment and government stimulus. Meanwhile, we’ve been able to find creative ways to stay afloat and we believe everything will work out for our family.”

One of Spaulding’s regular performance spots is the Lyric Theatre & Cultural Arts Center. Located on Lexington’s east end, the COVID-19 outbreak marks the first time the theatre has had to shutter it’s doors since reopening in 2010. While the venue is losing out on significant income streams due to cancelled events, the theatre’s patron services coordinator, Trebecca Henderson, has been hard at work offering interactive content for patrons to engage with. That includes posting episodes of “Stories from the Lyric,” a bi-weekly show on RadioLEX examining the venue’s rich history, to YouTube, along with sharing virtual art gallery tours and archived episodes of WoodSongs Old-Time Radio Hour, the popular weekly show the theatre has hosted since January 2013.

Also taking the shutdown in stride is musician Lee Owen, who typically performs multiple times a week with the bands Wayne Graham and Born Cross-Eyed, along with his weekly ‘Grateful Sunday’ Grateful Dread tribute gigs at Lynagh’s Irish Pub. Other opportunities lost include Kentucky Derby weekend events and a run of shows for Centre College in Danville, answering questions about The Grateful Dead. To make up for the lost shows, Owen has continued hosting virtual Grateful Sundays, broadcast live from his home, in recent weeks, and has picked up extra tech work on University of Kentucky’s campus to help fill the void of lost income from music.

“My projects keep my mind busy and I enjoy running and exercising to keep the blood flowing,” said Owen. “I feel like the extra time to work on my projects, stop eating out and to focus on myself is a blessing. It’ll surely suck when the virus hits folks I know, but until then I’m enjoying vacation.”

As for Lynagh’s, the bar is completely shut down due to the virus. However, owner Jeb Messer says that the bar has applied for the government’s Payroll Protection Program, and if approved they plan to bring back some staff to allow for carry-out orders from the kitchen. In the meantime, Jeb and wife Amy have been painting and making small improvements to the space during what is usually one of their busiest times of the year.

“This has been very difficult for our staff,” said Jeb Messer. “Not only have we had to lay folks off but the timing of the shutdown really hurt us because all of our staff missed out on St. Patrick’s Day, which is our busiest day of the year.”

Local drummer Mike Tivis has also been heavily impacted by the effects of COVID-19, with shows he had lined up with several bands – Yellow Cuss, Whitehall Bear, Rhinestone Moses and others – having been put on hold by the virus. Like Adams, Tivis’s alternative income streams – front-of-house and booking work at The Green Lantern, and a retail job – have also dried up. 

Despite the disappointment of cancelled concerts and studio time, Tivis says he finds solace in the fact that not just he, but everyone is going through this experience – and the struggles that come with it – together.

“For me, at least, it’s important to remember that this isn’t just happening to me,” said Tivis. “It’s not personal and has nothing to do with me. It is happening to us each and every one of us.”

Despite being closed and unable to host patrons and shows, the Green Lantern has been opening daily from 4-9 p.m. during the pandemic to sell packaged beer, liquor and to-go cocktails and Green Lantern T-shirts, according to co-owner Lindsey Mullen. The bar is also working on organizing a livestreaming concert series called “The Green Lantern Presents” to help promote and support the local artists who would usually be performing on their stage.

“The Lantern is a family, and seeing everyone who works here struggling and worried is heartbreaking,” said Mullen. “A few of our bartenders are working the package sales, but most have filed for unemployment or applied for grants. While these outlets are great, we do worry that it will not be enough to sustain them over an undetermined amount of time.”

Mullen added that she has encouraged her staff to utilize local relief organizations, such as the Restaurant Workers Relief Program, which distributes free meals daily to service industry workers, and the Lexington Mutual Aid Group, which connects folks who are in need with assistance with folks who are able to provide some in some way.

“There will be a day when this is behind us,” Tivis said. “Thinking about all the awesome shows that will happen and all the people I’m gonna give big hugs to helps when I’m feeling down on it all.” 

This story originally appeared in the Chevy Chaser Magazine and with photos from Sarah Cahill. View the original story online here.

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