On Monday, something happened at Robert’s Western World on lower Broadway that hadn’t been possible for more than two months. Two musicians walked onto a stage, guitars in hand, to play before a live audience.
“Now, I’ll tell you what,” said country artist Sarah Gayle Meech. “Paul and I haven’t played a live show in a couple months now, other than just sitting in my house doing livestreams, like we’re supposed to do. So, I’ll see if we remember how to do this.”
Then she and fellow musician Paul Kramer started strumming their guitars together.
Meech streamed the concert on Facebook live and took requests from viewers still quarantining at home. But during the honky tonk’s first evening of in-person performances since the city’s Safer at Home order took effect in March, she also had a live audience in front of her, chatting in the background.
“We still a two-person operation,” she said. “You know why?”
Kramer tilted his head and leaned into the microphone. He asked Meech, “Why?”
“‘Cause it’s still phase two! It’s only phase two,” she explained. “I mean, today’s the first day that clubs are officially allowed to have live music again, so that’s pretty cool. But you can just do it as a duo, so far. So, we’re gonna entertain you guys as best we can, playing good old-fashioned country music.”
Nashville is officially in phase two of its reopening plan. And that means Music City can finally bring back its live music.
The mayor’s office says in-person performances are now allowed at restaurants and bars that serve food. But only if safety measures are in place.
That means at least 15 feet between the audience and performers. Dance floors must remain closed. And only two musicians can be onstage at a time.
Coronavirus task force chair Alex Jahangir says that’s based on advice from both the music industry and the state.
“We’ll learn as we go,” he says. “I mean, there are some great duets — Kenny [Rogers] and Dolly [Parton], let’s say. You know, maybe we can get some great duets going.”
The new protocols could prove difficult for some.
The famous Bluebird Cafe, which hosts weekly open mic nights for budding artists and intimate concerts with country legends, says it’s staying closed, for now. General Manager Erika Nichols says there’s not much room for social distancing in the little listening room, tucked between a hair salon and a children’s store in a Green Hills strip mall.
“It’s still a challenge for us to kind of figure out where we fit in and what the next best step is for us, considering the health of our visitors, our songwriters and our staff,” Nichols says. “Given our tiny space and how our room operates — which is so lovely when you can get a full room of people experiencing a song, close-up and personal with the writers — that is also now a situation that’s a little more suspect to put into place.”
Nichols wants to open back up — to see songwriters and music lovers back in the Bluebird’s empty seats, to take her staff off furlough. Economically, though, she says that’s not really an option right now.
“We need to have about 55 people in the room to break even,” Nichols says. That level of capacity wouldn’t be possible given current public health guidelines.
“We’re waiting it out to see how things go and when we might be able to have that capacity in the room,” she says. “We can’t open and lose money every night.”
Many drummers, bassists and backup singers will also be left out of phase two, because of the current limit on the number of performers allowed onstage.
“Musicians need to get back to work,” says Dave Pomeroy, president of the Nashville Musicians Association. “But we cannot ignore safety concerns, either.”
The union has created a crisis fund to support artists hit hard by the pandemic. Though self-employed musicians are now eligible for unemployment benefits, Pomeroy says some are still struggling to make ends meet. And he’s asking anyone who’s enjoyed live music in the city to make a donation.
“Nashville has a music community like nowhere else on earth,” Pomeroy says. “And we can show the world how to work together for the greater good of all of us.”
Samantha Max is a Report for America corps member.