A few weeks ago, as I was planning out season two of the Reckon Interview, coronavirus was barely a blip on our radar. Now it’s changed our entire way of life. If you’re like me, sometimes you turn to music to help you get through confusing times.
But right now, musicians themselves are wondering where to turn. When festivals like Bonnaroo and Hangout Fest are shut down or closed. When your favorite bars and venues have closed up shop. Musicians can’t tour.
So, musicians like John Paul White are trying to figure out their paths forward. He’s a Grammy-award winning singer-songwriter from Florence, Alabama, the founder and co-owner of Single Lock Records, and a one-time member of the Civil Wars.
But right now, like a lot of us, he’s an Alabamian stuck at home.
We recorded this interview just after we learned the legendary musician John Prine had tested positive for coronavirus. Earlier this week, Prine succumbed to the disease. The world lost one of its great songwriters and John Paul White lost a friend and mentor.
In this episode, we discussed what Prine meant to White, how coronavirus has altered the music industry, how so much musical talent emerged from the Shoals, and ways that you can support your favorite artists during the economic shutdown.
Here are a few excerpts from the episode to get you started.
On the possibility of losing John Prine to COVID-19
I have been just immersed in this this quarantine world for the past [few] weeks. But at the start of it, I was on tour up in New York state and Massachusetts and Canada and had to cut about seven shows off of the end of the tour.
And I drove home my wife didn’t want me to fly, I drove back home and every single day felt a little bit more ominous, a little bit heavier. Especially up there. People were definitely taking it serious quickly.
And they were my shows were… some of them were sold out but they wouldn’t allow but 50% of the room. I kept feeling this ethical moral dilemma of ‘yeah, people can do what they want to do and they will do what they were going to do.’ But I felt a responsibility to not give people a reason to get out and be near each other.
But it was a much more muted feeling at the time for sure.
And it just kept changing so fast. And fast forward to now and to the real chance that somebody that is one of my biggest heroes on the face of this you know musical earth, but also a friend and someone that has treated me like an equal and treated me kindly and accepted me into his family…
It’s devastating and it’s hitting harder than anything has up to this point. It makes me mad.
It makes me you know, like, this is a national treasure and this is my friend and “don’t you touch him,” kind of thing, you know. But it also makes me just want to shake people that I see hanging out in town at the garden centers and getting some great quality gardening time in, like it’s a vacation.
I just feel like it’s morbid, but it’s going to take losing somebody like John, to get some people to wake up and realize, even if you think that you’re gonna make it through it, you’re just carrying it around to people that can’t.
And he’s had a hard row, you know, the past 20 some odd years, his health has been up and down. He’s had, you know, he’s just kind of been snake bit and those are the people that this is going to prey on. And everyone has those people in their lives. You’re one step removed from that, whether it’s your parents or your grandparents or your friend’s parents or grandparents or somebody that’s my age or younger, that has immune deficiency, or they have issues with their lungs.
It’s like I just want to scream. Especially in this state of Alabama, where a lot of people have accepted the idea that it’s either a hoax or it’s not that big a deal or it’s like the flu and I had the flu once and I’ll be fine. I just want to scream, because that’s the people that can’t hear reason. They have to learn the hard way. I just, I worry that we’ve got a lot worse things in front of us.
On how coronavirus has hit the music industry
The pie is much smaller than it used to be where record sales is not what they used to be. And so we’re all operating on a much smaller bottom line. And, and that’s fine. That’s the way it is. And I’m not Chicken Little about it all. And I don’t sit around and whine about it.
But it just does make your margins smaller and makes you think a little bit harder about how to set up your tours and how many people to be in your band and how much you can pay them and if you can rent a van or if you get a tour bus.
All these things have changed dramatically. And we depend almost 80 to 90% on touring for our income.
So it doesn’t matter who you are, at any level, most of these guys are leveraged. Most of these guys have… if they’re in the upper echelon, they’ve got a bus and they’ve got a staff and they’ve got musicians, and they’ve got salaries and insurance and all that’s gone.
And then if you’re a lot of the acts that we work with at Single Lock, it’s the only form of currency you’ve got. Because, you know, streaming is miniscule in numbers and it takes a minute for that pipeline money to get to your doorstep. So touring is everything. And they can’t just go get a job now because they don’t exist. And we’re just incredibly worried about them.
And on top of that, you have a lot of creative people that can’t make a living, can’t get out and do the thing that makes them click. And they write these songs because they they’re therapy and they need to share them with people. Well, that’s gone. And a lot of them have, you know, anxiety and depression. And there’s a lot of things that go into our profession that we don’t cope well with being stuck in a room alone for weeks on end. It’s not good for this job description.
On how to support your favorite artists, if you are able
Obviously, streaming music is a good thing and people are doing a ton of it and those monies get to us eventually and but it’s a small amount. That takes a whole lot of those to add up to pay bills. So I would strongly suggest if humanly possible to go directly to the artist’s website. And buy a record. Buy a record for a friend. Buy a bumper sticker. Buy a T-shirt. Just anything. Buy a gift card and then get their record later when they make their next one.
On top of that a lot of people are doing, you know, live streams with tip jars. Please, if you can toss $1 or $5 or something in that tip jar when you feel like you can do that.
The other thing is, you know, MusiCares is run by the Grammy folks and it’s a fantastic organization that’s doing a lot for out-of-work musicians, but also out-of-work artists and songwriters and, you know, people that work behind the scenes and that don’t wield a guitar that are out of work as well. You know tour managers and merch managers and sound engineers all those folks are also out of a job and MusiCares does great job helping those folks supplement.
The people in Nashville are having a really hard time right now because as you know the tornado coming through and devastating East Nashville. And then this comes on top of it most of East Nashville is musicians. So now they’ve got leveled houses, no jobs, and people are afraid to go out and help work like they were.
You can support the artists of East Nashville by contributing to the Community Foundation of Middle Tennessee. You can find them at CFMT.org. And you can contribute to MusiCares by going to Grammy.com.
For John Paul White’s thoughts on Muscle Shoals, Southern influences and ‘protest music,’ listen to the full episode here.