How the 'Red Dirt' Music Scene Is Trying to Survive the Pandemic - Rolling Stone
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How the ‘Red Dirt’ Music Scene Is Trying to Survive the Pandemic

Why country artists Randy Rogers, Wade Bowen, and Reckless Kelly are leaning on their bank accounts, side businesses, and their dedicated fans

Randy Rogers

“We were all told to diversify, and I did, but the problem is that those things I did diversify into are related to gatherings,” says Randy Rogers, one of many Texas artists trying to financially navigate the pandemic.

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This is the seventh installment of Rolling Stone’Music in Crisis series, which looks at how people all across the music industry are coping with the coronavirus pandemic.

music in crisis
Randy Rogers left the stage at Terminal 5, the multitiered concert hall in west Manhattan, waving thank-you’s to the crowd’s calls for one more song. Rogers made his way out a side door and headed for a night on the town.

A day after that February 28th co-headlining gig at “Texas Independence Day,” the annual celebration of the Lone Star State and its music scene at Terminal 5, he played in Cambridge, Massachusetts, wrapping up the first leg of a tour celebrating 20 years of the Randy Rogers Band. His month had begun with a trio of arena concerts opening for Miranda Lambert. Before going home to New Braunfels, Texas, Rogers visited Nashville. There, he worked on a series of promotional videos for the upcoming Hold My Beer, Vol. 2, his second duets album with Wade Bowen, out Friday.

On his way to Nashville, and less than 48 hours after the Terminal 5 concert, which also featured Pat Green and the Josh Abbott Band, officials announced New York City’s first known case of the coronavirus. A 39-year-old woman had contracted the virus while traveling in Iran. Over the next two weeks, concert tours of all sizes were suspended over virus concerns. Rogers got in one more show — March 6th in Bossier City, Louisiana — before social distancing in New Braunfels.

“I was tired when this first came up,” Rogers says. “We had planned to have time off in March. Our band’s kids are spring-break age, so we had planned for a break. Now, obviously we have canceled the entire month, but at the time it was just another tour break.”

Rogers faced one problem immediately: He has other business interests. He co-owns the venerable music room Cheatham Street Warehouse in San Marcos, Texas, as well as ChopShop Live, a restaurant and music venue in the Fort Worth suburb of Roanoke. Rogers also co-owns Big Blind Management, from which he manages Parker McCollum, who signed with MCA Nashville in 2019. All of Rogers’ businesses were either completely or partially shut down.

“We were all told to diversify, and I did, years ago, but the problem with this particular virus is that those things I did diversify into are still related to gatherings,” he says. “The restaurant business that I’m in has been shut down. Cheatham Street Warehouse is shut down. Management-wise, I’m on Parker’s management team, and William Beckham’s team. I own Big Blind Management, and we’ve had to let some people go from that who work for us. Even though my eggs weren’t all in one basket, basically everything that I have has been affected. It is a little scary.”

He is hardly alone. Over the past decade, independent artists in the “Red Dirt” music scene who saw success onstage found safety nets and financial security in business investments. For Rogers and Bowen, it was opening restaurants and bars. For members of Austin-based Reckless Kelly, it was managing the annual Braun Brothers Reunion festival in Challis, a mountain town in their home state of Idaho. And for Cody Canada, also of New Braunfels, it was opening a School of Rock franchise offering rock-music lessons to children and teens. None of the businesses have avoided the shutdown’s impact.

Aside from their respective bands, Rogers and Bowen have toured acoustically with each other since 2002, dubbing their shows “Hold My Beer and Watch This.” The first album of the same name was released in 2015 and became a regional hit. Despite the virus lockdown, the follow-up is still a go for release. Both artists see an opportunity to fill a void with their target audience stuck at home.

“We debated pushing the release back,” Bowen says. “But we came to the conclusion that now, more than ever, people need music. We always need it when times are tough, and now is that time. They’re sitting at home, they’re bored. Give them something to look forward to. It stinks that we can’t go out and tour and support it, but we’re going to make ends meet with this.”

This is the second unplanned break in three years for Bowen, who was forced off the road for six months in 2018 after a vocal-cord hemorrhage, which at one point left him uncertain of ever singing again.

“I’m lucky in a sense, since I just did all this two years ago,” Bowen says. “I know there’s another side. The difference this time is that everyone is going to experience that other side together. In 2018, we just went out on the road and hit every gig that we could book. This time, every band in the country is going to be trying to do that.”

Almost immediately after concerts were canceled, Bowen launched “Wade’s World,” a Friday night Facebook Live show, featuring performances and interviews with other artists.

“I was trying to get ahead of the curve, the moment everything started breaking down,” Bowen says. “I knew it would go over well, but the response from fans has been overwhelming. Already, I’m preparing myself to continue doing this stream in some way after we are touring again.”

In the two months and counting of lost bookings, there is one that stands out to both men. They were set to play the Ryman Auditorium — with Bowen opening for Rogers — as headliners for the first time in April.

“We can go play these Hold My Beer shows and celebrate the album whenever,” Rogers says. “[But that Ryman] show had been sold out for several months. Not getting to play that show was pretty painful.

“At the same time,” he continues, “I’ve gotten to sit on the couch with my little girls and watch TV, and I’ve put them to bed every night for the last month and a half. There is a silver lining.”

Reckless Kelly is in a similar position. The band spent much of 2019 recording a pair of albums — American Girls and American Jackpot — both scheduled to be released on May 22nd.

“With the record coming out, we had right around a hundred shows booked through the summer,” Cody Braun, the band’s co-founder, says. “We had a successful year planned out.

“In our case, we own our own label. We pay for the making of the record, we hire the publicity company,” he adds. “We spend more money on our records than a lot of artists do, because we enjoy the process. We were in the studio, Arlyn Studios here in Austin, for about 15 days. We did about 15 songs and liked them so much we went back in for another week. After that, we liked it all and decided to do these double albums.”

“We are really going to lean heavily on our fans to buy these records digitally.… If you want to see the band tour this fall, we need you buying this now.” —Reckless Kelly’s Cody Braun

While a typical album would cost Reckless Kelly around $30,000 to record and release, Braun said the band invested closer to $60,000 in American Girls and American Jackpot. The May 22nd release is still on, digitally. Vinyl pressings have been held up as factories have shuttered.

“We are just kind of guessing, like everyone else is,” he says. “We recorded this over a year ago, and we really need to get it out, and it’s really going to make or break how we pay the bills and our band and crew this year. We are really going to lean heavily on our fans to buy these records digitally, or stream through Pandora or Spotify, and not go out and stream it free somewhere. Basically, if you want to see the band tour this fall, we need you buying this now if you can.”

Reckless Kelly, as a band, also books, produces, and headlines the annual Braun Brothers Reunion festival in Challis in August. What began in the 1990s as a family show with Cody’s father and uncles, as well as his brothers Willy, Gary, and Micky, is now a three-day festival that draws 5,000 fans and is a boon to the Idaho community, with its population of around 1,000. Last year, Steve Earle and Reverend Horton Heat performed.

“Right now, at this moment, it’s still on,” Cody Braun says. “This isn’t like a lot of other festivals, where we could just reschedule it to the fall. Bands have to route entire tours around getting to Idaho in the summer, and they can’t change all of that for us. So our best bet is to wait and see what happens, and hope that in August it’s still a go.”

For Canada, there’s no album to promote or festival to plan. He estimates his three-piece, the Departed, have lost nearly $300,000 from canceled shows so far during the pandemic. The Departed is a small band — Canada’s wife, Shannon, manages the group, which travels with only a tour manager, a bus driver, and merchandise seller — meaning the lost revenue is a significant income hit for all. After a month of isolation, they found a solution in mid-April. They began selling private, live-streamed concerts (via Zoom) for $250 each.

“The first day we started selling those, Shannon booked enough of them that we’ll be able to keep our bus driver on the payroll for two more months, and my bandmates can pay bills,” Canada says. “I’ve always been an ‘anywhere, any time’ guy, and I never thought in a million years that I would be jobless as an artist. Well, here I am now, jobless, if I don’t come up with something. These livestream shows are going to help that.”

Like the other artists, Canada has a side business to balance. In 2018, Cody and Shannon opened a School of Rock franchise in New Braunfels, inspired by their two sons, Dierks and Willy, and their interest in music. Canada’s first fear when virus-related closures began was that he would lose the school. Those fears have been allayed, for now, by quick moves on the part of School of Rock’s corporate office to support remote training for its franchises.

“The school was doing better than it ever had for us,” Canada says. “That was our plan three years ago — build it and keep building. We were up to about 140 students in February. We lost some, not enough to panic, but some. And I have to brag on our corporate office, they really have everything together. I know that the bottom line is making money, but they really care about the well-being of our kids and instructors. Within a week, we went from panic about the school to feeling like we had a plan. The corporate office set up remote classes, emphasized doing it in a safe environment for the kids, and the kids have been so amazing to accept it.”

For these independent artists, and their side ventures, the path through the crisis is built less on some intangible optimism and more on a conviction that they will be able to work through it.

“We have enough money from touring, and in the band’s bank accounts, to not have to lay off any of our employees who are on the road with us. I’m proud of that,” says Rogers, who founded the Randy Rogers Band in 2000. “I told my entire crew and band that if the ship sinks, we all sink. No reduction of salaries from the lowest guy in the crew to the lead singer. And I’m going to stick with that. Some business people will tell me that I’m crazy, but I feel like this whole thing is one big family.”

Josh Crutchmer is the author of the upcoming book Red Dirt: Singers, Songs and Stories From a Roots Music Movement Sweeping Down the Plains (Ingram 2020)

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