With an average of more than 8,300 positive cases reported each day, Tennessee held the ignominious distinction last week of leading the United States in new Covid-19 cases per capita. Yet this week thousands of music fans and more than 200 performing artists are expected in Nashville for the Americana Music Festival and Conference, a weeklong celebration of roots music presented each September by the Americana Music Association.
While the Americana Honors & Awards ceremony, live showcases by established stars, and Q&As with genre A-listers like Brandi Carlile top the schedules of many attendees, trepidation about gathering in a state overrun by Covid-19 has been a topic of conversations among fans, performers, publicists, journalists, and organizers for weeks.
In August, the Americana Music Association announced updated safety guidelines for the event, which kicked off Tuesday and runs through Saturday. The protocols require all attendees to provide proof of vaccination or a negative Covid test for entry to any of AmericanaFest’s concerts, showcases, and panels held at venues around Nashville like the Basement East, the Cannery Ballroom, and Brooklyn Bowl. Masks are required at the indoor panels, but not for the concerts — all attendees are encouraged to mask up, regardless of vaccination status. (Protocols may vary at third-party events, like an outdoor Texas music showcase set for Thursday on a hotel rooftop.)
At an AmericanaFest pre-party at Brooklyn Bowl on Tuesday night, a small and mostly masked crowd watched sets by Jesse Malin, David Ramirez, and White Denim. While not an official AMA event, the showcase was a microcosm of what attendees can likely expect this week: strict vaccine card checks at the door, venue staff and even some band members in masks, and a stab at normality.
But such safety protocols haven’t been enough for some artists. U.K. singer-songwriter Emma Swift, who interpreted the songs of Bob Dylan for her latest album Blonde on the Tracks, canceled her AmericanaFest performances last week.
“I have been wrestling with this decision for weeks. In the end, I decided to withdraw from the festival because the outrageous Covid numbers in Tennessee this past weekend were too distressing for me to go ahead and play the show and feel okay about it. It breaks my heart,” Swift tells Rolling Stone. “Sadly, there hasn’t been enough action by the local authorities to make Nashville a safer city to work in, to go to school in or to play music in. I play music because I love it, but I don’t love it enough to risk my health or the health of others.”
Matt Sever, who performs under the name Matt The Electrician and will release his new LP We Imagined an Ending in November, has also decided against coming to Nashville.
“The Covid case numbers seem really high in Tennessee right now, and I say that as someone who lives in Texas,” Sever says. “I don’t want to be even an unwitting part of making anything harder for people in the health care industry, or putting my family at risk.”
Swift and Sever join other Americana artists like Amy Helm, Israel Nash, Judy Blank, Sarah Peacock, the Suitcase Junket, and Phoebe Hunt who have all canceled plans to perform at AmericanaFest because of the Covid-19 situation in Tennessee. Missing the opportunity to perform in front of tastemakers and fans at AmericanaFest — especially if they have new albums to support — can be a setback for their careers.
“I will do everything I can — save for play my showcase — to support my new album as it enters the world,” says Hunt, a songwriter and fiddle player who is still attending the festival as a panelist. “This really gives me an extra challenge, but it’s one that I am willing to take on.”
“It’s a great place to play your songs in front of people that may be able to help out with your career. I’m a bigger fan of the intangible gains that industry conferences like Americana, SXSW and Folk Alliance can provide. You meet so many peers, and like-minded folks, and make connections that you might not otherwise. The community is absolutely the most important component to me,” Sever says. “But it’s a whole event that is largely built on face-to-face networking in bars and nightclubs, and right now, face-to-face anything feels a little scary.”
Jed Hilly, the executive director of the Americana Music Association, acknowledges artists’ fears — “Don’t do anything that you aren’t comfortable with,” he says — and says he’s been “losing sleep” over the challenges of producing such a large-scale, multi-venue event during a pandemic. Still, he remains bolstered by his lineup staying mostly intact.
“That’s in part because the team has been working day and night to make it as safe as possible,” Hilly says. “I’ve been trying to listen to everyone in the [Americana] community. We have community members who want a fully vaccinated conference; and those who don’t want any protocols put in place. In an effort to keep everyone safe — and that includes attendees, artists, everyone — last week we shifted our daytime policy to require masks inside our conference’s panel rooms… We are trying to stay in front of this and are working with our partners to find our way through this in the most safe and responsible way possible.”
As Hilly notes, the majority of artists announced in July are still performing for the AmericanaFest crowds, which come from across the country and as far away as Australia, Portugal, and the U.K. The 2019 festival attracted an estimated aggregate attendance of 50,000, which includes local fans and those who aren’t registered for the conference. The AMA doesn’t expect similar numbers this year.
“As far as attendance, the numbers are quickly changing as we’re going into our event week with an influx of locals buying passes and door tickets to nightly shows, but given the current landscape, I think we’re happy with the turnout,” Hilly says. “Our goal this year isn’t attendance; it’s to prioritize the safety of everyone who comes out to enjoy the festival.“
Zach Schmidt, a Nashville singer-songwriter promoting his new album Raise a Banner at AmericanaFest, says that after devoting nearly four years of his life to writing and recording his LP, it’s imperative that he finally seizes the chance to perform it.
“We all desperately want to get back to some sense of normalcy. So it’s important for us artists to get out there and play for the agents and labels and managers, all the things that went away with the pandemic,” Schmidt tells Rolling Stone. “We released a record that I am really excited about and I’m glad that the Americana Music Association and the venues are taking the steps to make sure that we are safe. I think that art will be the great healer for all of us who have experienced so much loss over the past two years.”
Schmidt is scheduled to perform Thursday night at the Basement, a small indoor club. Like all AmericanaFest host venues, it will require proof of vaccination or a negative test for entry.
Dr. Alex Jahangir, the head of Nashville’s Covid Task Force, endorses the protocols the venues and the Americana Music Association have put in place. While he’s concerned by Tennessee’s high case numbers and low vaccination rates, he says festival-goers can get their music fix without much risk — assuming they get vaccinated, social distance when possible, and wear a mask, especially when indoors.
“What [AmericanaFest] is doing is accurate and appropriate. While nothing is completely foolproof, these strategies will greatly decrease any risk of disease transmission and allow us to enjoy the things that we want, like music,” he tells Rolling Stone. “I would feel safe as a fully vaccinated person going to a place that is fully vaccinated.”
Despite canceling this year, Phoebe Hunt is already looking forward to the 2022 festival. She hopes both attending and giving live concerts feels safer then and reignites her desire to perform.
“Ultimately, I realized that when and if I am invited to play at a conference like AmericanaFest again,” she says, “I really want to feel comfortable and excited about the show.”
(Additional reporting by Jon Freeman)