How Nashville's Play-for-Tips Musicians Are Adapting to Quarantine - Rolling Stone
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How Nashville’s Play-for-Tips Musicians Are Adapting in the Age of Social Distancing

Joshua Hedley and the honky-tonk Robert’s Western World launched a new livestream series this week

Joshua HedleyJoshua Hedley

Nashville play-for-tips musicians like Joshua Hedley are adapting to an era of closed bars and quarantine with inventive livestreams.

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Joshua Hedley has played Robert’s Western World, the famous Nashville honky-tonk known for its old-school country music and fried bologna sandwiches, thousands of times since 2005, but until this past Tuesday night, he had never performed there to an empty dance floor.

After bars and honky-tonks shut down in Nashville’s Lower Broadway tourist district earlier this week, depriving play-for-tips musicians of their livelihoods, Hedley had the idea to take the Robert’s stage for a livestream, joining the scores of musicians who have been performing mini concerts from their homes.

“I was like, ‘I don’t really want to broadcast live from my house,’ ” Hedley tells Rolling Stone. “I don’t have the proper equipment. But then it just dawned on me: What if we did this in front of an empty Robert’s, just like we normally would?”

On Tuesday, Hedley and his band, the Hedliners, along with solo artist Dave Cox, played their first livestreamed show for Venmo and Paypal tips. It was a surprising success, with Hedley and his musicians taking in more money via virtual tips from around the world than they normally would on a given night in a packed Robert’s. The performance, which is archived on Robert’s Western World’s Facebook page, has thus far received 53,000 views, exponentially more exposure than the 200-some-odd fans who can occupy the bar on a given night. 

Hedley, who released his debut album, Mr. Jukebox, in 2018, offered a typical set, delivering Johnny Horton and Merle Haggard covers, along with requests coming in from the internet. “We just treated it like any other night,” he says. “I just didn’t really know what to say between songs, because I wasn’t talking to anyone.”

After Tuesday night’s success, Hedley and Robert’s are working to organize a nightly schedule of livestreams from the bar. On Wednesday, singer-songwriter Brennen Leigh and Robert’s regular Sarah Gayle Meech performed, garnering 23,000 views.

The livestreams are a momentary respite for the dozens of musicians in Nashville who work as full-time entertainers in the city’s tourist district — all of whom are now looking for ways to earn back some portion of their nightly take.

“Everybody I know who plays downtown just plays downtown. So when that goes away, it’s like, ‘Oh, shit, now what?’ I don’t know anyone who has another job,” Hedley says. “We’re having to get creative. We’ve gotta eat.” 

Even among working musicians, Nashville’s Broadway entertainers are in a uniquely tough situation: Many of them tend to rely on cover songs for tourists, making it harder to amass a sustaining fanbase for their original music. By finding a way to perform in their typical live environment, musicians like Hedley and Meech are maintaining a degree of normalcy and routine, both for themselves and for fans, and providing escapist entertainment during the quarantine.

Hedley says more bands are reaching out to get involved, and he’s contemplating a short-term future where Robert’s Western World  is livestreaming live music via Twitch for most of the day.

In the meantime, he and the venue are looking for ways to make the livestreams more sustainable. At the moment, the honky-tonk’s manager, Emily Ann Cousins, is giving up her evenings to help produce the shows and hold up a piece of paper with the artist’s Venmo handle. “The bar isn’t making anything off this; it’s all for us,” Hedley says.

The venue is also batting around the idea of offering take-out meals from the Robert’s flattop. “You could get your fried bologna sandwich, take it home, crack open a PBR, and watch the band,” says Hedley. 

It remains to be seen how long honky-tonk fans will be willing to pay to listen to their favorite old-school country music from their homes each evening, but if the livestreams continue to go as well as they have been, Hedley thinks the bar should keep up the global livestream even when Robert’s reopens. “Instead of having to come to Nashville to see a band play,” he says,  “you can get your honky-tonk kicks wherever you are.”


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