Country stars detail COVID-19 hardships for band, crew, venues: 'It's devastating'

Keith Urban, Kelsea Ballerini, Maren Morris and others discuss shutdown shock

November 9, 2020, 4:10 AM

Little Big Town came into 2020 swinging.

The country music powerhouse group was having a “blast” in January, they said. At the time, the group’s new album, “Nightfall,” had just launched and they were on a jammed-packed tour that included gigs at Carnegie Hall and The Apollo in New York City.

But then, within a few weeks, the COVID-19 pandemic brought everything to a screeching halt.

“[It was] the best tour we had been on and then, wow, we didn’t see that coming,” said Little Big Town’s Jimi Westbrook. “We were scheduled to go to Detroit and to Chicago ... and we shut it down. But even then, it was like, we’ll gear down for a couple of weeks or something… We just had no idea it was going the way it was gonna go.”

In planning for a long tour, Westbrook said they had already spent money on leasing buses and gear.

“Just from a business standpoint, it was devastating,” he said. “All the money that you had spent on preparation for that and it’s just gone.”

“It was just like pulling the rug out from under us,” added Little Big Town’s Philip Sweet. “It was kind of an emotional gut punch.”

ABC News spoke to several country music stars for the upcoming ABC News special, “Country Strong 2020: Countdown to the CMA Awards,” which is airing Tuesday, Nov. 10 at 10 p.m. ET on ABC. These artists shared their personal hardships through the ongoing pandemic and also how they have struggled with supporting their bands and crew members with canceled tours and reduced remote album promotions.

To date, the United States is the worst-affected nation in the world, with more than 9.2 million diagnosed cases and at least 231,003 deaths related to COVID-19. As of Nov. 2, new COVID-19 cases were rising in 49 out of 50 states.

Reflecting on shutdown shock, ensuing hardships

Maren Morris said she and her husband, fellow musician Ryan Hurd, realized how devastating the pandemic and resulting shutdowns were going to be when a flurry of sporting events and festivals were postponed or canceled in early March.

“South By Southwest [in Austin], I think, had just pulled the plug on their festival, which they have never done, and that’s when I kind of knew as a Texan how serious this was going to be for my industry,” Morris said, who grew up in Arlington, Texas.

“The Middle” singer played her last in-person concert at the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo at NRG Stadium on March 7 when she was nine months pregnant. She and Hurd welcomed a son on March 23.

Keith Urban was supposed to play the same venue just a few weeks later, but then stay-at-home orders started going into effect across the country.

“I remember we were actually on the phone and talking about how we were going to do meet-and-greet, and [they] were saying, ‘Maybe you shouldn't do that part of it. You can do the show but not the other part of it.’ And then, before we knew it, the whole gig was canceled,” Urban said.

Several artists spoke about recognizing how much their band and crew members relied on them and touring for their income -- money they can’t recuperate.

“That was the toughest part for me was when finally you just have to say, you know, you can’t just pay everybody,” said Rucker, who is co-hosting the Country Music Awards this year on ABC with Reba McEntire. “I paid everybody as long as I could, and ... all this money going out and none coming in.”

“Best Shot” singer Jimmie Allen said he took out a “crazy loan” and renegotiated a publishing deal, to try to keep his crew afloat. He also founded his own publishing company and signed one of his bandmates.

“I couldn’t sleep.... I was stressed out because I’m... good financially, but these guys have wives, they have families. So I said, screw it. I went to the bank,” Allen said. “I’ve got 45 years to pay it back.”

Without tour money coming in, Morris said she had to furlough her team this summer. Luckily, she said, she landed five virtual shows through Verizon a few weeks ago and was able to bring them back on.

“As random as that seems, those five shows allowed me to put my band back on salary for 2021 and pay for their health insurance,” Morris said. “It’s such a scary time to not have health insurance right now.”

Superstars Luke Bryan and Lionel Richie, who were in the middle of production for "American Idol" when the pandemic hit, said the show had to rethink how they were going to continue safely and remotely.

Richie, a music legend with an enormously successful, decades-long career that includes a 2011 all-country duets album, "Tuskegee," said artists are used to using music to connect with fans and "all of a sudden we... could not do that."

"We have spent, what, nine months, almost 10 months now, silent," Richie said. "What has also been very difficult is that the crew, the band... the truck drivers, the bus drivers, the people who actually make the show possible, the riggers, they're silent, and I find myself more-- so worried about them because without them, we don't play. But without the industry, they don't work... there are a lotta folks that are going through a very tough time right now."

Little Big Town’s Karen Fairchild said most of Nashville’s musicians, including members of their band and crew, have struggled to make ends meet. Some have picked up second jobs.

“There are people that are … driving trucks or whatever, and delivering groceries and, you know, anything they can do. They’ve sold their instruments,” Fairchild said, adding that the mental strain has also taken its toll.

“Our drummer has six children. That’s a lot of meals a day… that’s a lot of worry for people,” she added. “Everybody’s doing the best they can but it has hit our town hard because we’re a music town.”

Dierks Bentley said he has about 25 people on payroll between his band and crew and he’s been able to keep paying them so far.

“They’re still on salary, and we’re just trying to stretch that out for as long as we can,” said the “Burning Man” singer.

When they are able to play together, Bentley said he and his band wear masks when they can’t socially distance and their microphones are cleaned regularly.

“There’s a kind of a personal accountability amongst all of us, to make sure we’re doing right- the right things, to take care of each other,” Bentley said. “We’re all big proponents of the mask, we don’t have a problem wearing masks.”

And it’s not just hard on the bands and crews, Morris noted. Nashville’s iconic music venues like the Ryman Auditorium, The Basement and the Grand Ole Opry remain closed to crowds, which affects thousands of venue worker jobs, and has quieted the heartbeat of Music City.

“People are still writing songs on Music Row in their own way through Zoom and what not, but the live element just doesn’t exist right now,” Morris said. “We don’t know when we’ll get to open those doors again.”

PHOTO: A view of Lower Broadway during the COVID-19 pandemic, March 31, 2020, in Nashville, Tenn.
A view of Lower Broadway during the COVID-19 pandemic, March 31, 2020, in Nashville, Tenn. Tennessee's Governor Bill Lee issued an executive order directing the people of Tennessee to stay home unless engaging in essential activities to limit the spread of the coronavirus.
Danielle Del Valle/Getty Images

How musicians are creatively moving forward

Aside from performing, several artists started the year getting ready to launch new albums or were in the middle of working on one. Production and promotion plans were also put on hold.

Kelsea Ballerini started the year gearing up for the launch of her album “kelsea,” which dropped in March, and a tour to promote it. When the COVID-19 shutdown occurred, the “Homecoming Queen” singer said she coped by going to therapy and throwing herself into her work.

"I had the biggest tour of my career planned, it never even got announced," Ballerini said.

The result of her quarantine was a surprise second album drop, “ballerini,” in September.

“It’s not just putting out an album because it’s fun to do. It’s my career and a lot of other jobs depend on my career working,” she explained. “So it’s also that pressure that I put on myself as well.”

“That’s one thing that I can always do is make more music,” she added.

Urban said he too struggled creatively during the shutdown with trying to write an album alone from his home studio and work with his songwriting team remotely. His album “The Speed of Now Part 1” was released in September.

“I certainly didn't handle the locked down and the shutdown… well,” Urban said. “Creatively speaking, I got quite paralyzed with everything being stopped so quickly.

Slowly, but surely I figured out that I could do a lot of stuff and work remotely,” he added. “It was just strange when it became the only way to be making records.”

Finding the silver lining in an otherwise challenging time and looking ahead

Many of the artists ABC News spoke to are married and have children, and they agreed it’s been a strange but welcome change to spend more time at home. As for what the future holds and when they can take the stage in front of a crowd again, several artists said the not-knowing continues to be very stressful.

“Realistically we’ll probably be the last people back to work,” said Little Big Town’s Kimberly Schlapman. “There’s also so much anxiety about the future. When? When? We don’t know.”

“I mean, 2020 is just one long soundcheck,” Urban added. “It's been somewhat frustrating for musicians to watch sporting events somehow figure it out, but us not being able to figure it out. That's been very frustrating for me as a musician, but hopefully we're moving in the right direction.”

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