I got to Austin late on March 2nd, a day or so earlier than I originally anticipated. The trip from San Francisco took me about 3 days. Day one I left around 5pm and drove past Los Angeles, staying at a truck stop outside of Cactus city. Day two I drove to El Paso and stayed with a friend of a friend in their spare bedroom. Day 3, March 2nd, I rolled into town around 9:30pm.
Immediately I went out to the Hotel Van Zandt to meet with Catarina, who books music at Still Austin Whiskey. We saw an acoustic duo singing originals and covers, introduced ourselves, and they gave me some leads on where to go to find live music. I left the hotel, went to a bar called Icenhaur’s where they say there’s an open mic the next night, but if you go two doors down there’s a jazz trio playing for another half hour or so at Half Step. I catch the last few songs, the drummer is a masterful brushes player and I can tell he’s got to be one of the best jazz drummers in town. He tells me about a jazz jam he’s hosting the next night at a bar called Stay Gold, so I put it in my calendar and tell him I’ll see him there.
I go outside and start talking with a group of people who tell me they work at one of the other bars in town, Seven Grand, which is run by the same folks that own the Half Step. We spend the night out back in the yard behind the bar and I feel like I found a good group of people. Austin seems friendly and easy to get along in, and I can tell I’ll have no trouble finding musicians to play with.
Sure enough, within 3 days of getting to Austin I was playing open mics, jam sessions, sitting in with bands, and had already lined up some gigs. I was jamming every night, running from the blues jam to the honky tonk, seeing new friends and making more connections everywhere I went. I played all over town, at C-Boys, at Half Step, at the open mics and jam sessions. I had filled up the weeks ahead with gigs and showcases and was getting ready for what is usually one of the busiest weeks in Austin: SXSW. I had an official showcase and some parties booked with an Australian artist, Jamie Lee along with my friends Gene Evaro Jr. and Piper Roberson. I had solo sets, two full band shows and a band I was rehearsing for those shows. I was fast becoming good buddies with J. Stiles, aka Crystal Finger, who took me out kayaking after midnight and let me crash at his place while his roommate was on tour. I had hit a stride in Austin that felt easy, felt natural. I could see where I fit in and it was about to get WILD.
On March 6th they announced that SXSW was cancelled. CANCELLED?? Everyone in town was asking each other “have you heard?” Everyone in the bar, food, and music industries lost over a week of some of the biggest shows and parties this town sees each year. But there was this attitude of “well, I guess we’ll just throw our own parties!” and “we don’t need corporate sponsors” and my personal favorite “you can’t cancel Austin” (I made a button for that one!). Shows and parties continued to pop up, it looked like in spite of the corporations pulling out and plenty of out-of-towners choosing to cancel travel plans, it was still about to be an absolutely wild time here in Austin. There was almost an excitement, I heard people talking about how “it’s gonna be like old-school SXSW without all the hype and corporations”.
But as the week went on, news of how serious the threat of Coronavirus was began to spread, and it started to look like maybe this wasn’t going to be a situation where we could carry on the way we thought we would. Every day, it seemed, another show would cancel, even entire showcases that had been booked out for the whole week. Then we got the word. Bars and restaurants are closed. Nothing. No gigs. No shows. No gathering, even. We have to stay inside. We have to quarantine.
I had seen on Facebook that artists in Seattle were losing their gigs, that venues were closing, but that made more sense to me because I had heard there was a pretty serious outbreak up there in Kirkland. It turned out that Austin was to follow suit just a day or so later.
We went from preparing for the busiest time of the year to ghost town in about a week. The last day I was out in Austin, I saw some people out, some bars open, even played music on a couple stages, but it was clear that this wasn’t going to continue. I had already started making sure I used my own microphone any time I performed, and even got kicked off stage at one place where I was going to sing because the guy running the gig didn’t want to let me use my mic. “It’s ok, I can just unplug this one and put mine on”. “No you can’t, the system is EQ-ed to this mic” “It’ll be ok, I just don’t want to risk getting anyone sick or anything” “Well then you can’t sing.” He reached over and unplugged my ukulele and asked me to get off stage. It was awkward because my friends were there and had encouraged him to let me sit in, and they were confused when I got off stage without playing. “He wouldn’t let me use my own mic”. “What! Fuck him!” “I mean, he’s got his preferences and I’ve got mine, they just weren’t compatible this time around. I can only take care of myself”.
We went back to my friend’s place and sang songs outside, lamenting the fact that we wouldn’t be able to play anymore shows for awhile. The next day, my friend Kimarie offered to let me stay at her partner’s house. They normally Airbnb it out to people, but since everything was cancelled it was empty.
I’ve been in this house for 13 days now and I’m incredibly grateful to have a place to myself during this time. I’ve been sleeping in, running around the neighborhood, making food, practicing my drums, watching some TV once it’s too late to make noise, and reading. It really is an ideal situation for me right now. Every day someone reaches out to invite me to come to the studio, or come hang, or join us for this or that, but I’ve been holding my ground and staying here because I know that one of the best things I can do is to avoid risking exposure and contact, even as much as people guarantee me that they’ve been careful or that they’ll observe social distancing recommendations.
It’s an interesting time for everyone, and for musicians who just lost their entire livelihood it’s an opportunity to adapt and look forward to how we may be able to sustain an income in the absence of live gigs. I’ve taught some online Skype lessons, which I had just started doing about a month ago. I got the idea to put some of my album artwork out as a puzzle so that I could help people at home pass the time while also providing a way for those with the means to support. I had a few people sign up for my Launch Team, where you can sign up for a monthly contribution in exchange for access to exclusive content, or join the Button Club, or sign up for a monthly “it’s NOT therapy” phone call.
I trust that I will be ok, I’ll be able to find a path through this and continue to find ways to add value to people’s lives. I feel immense compassion for those in situations that are more difficult than mine, and understand how fortunate I am to be in a place where I feel safe and taken care of (even if the path to re-establishing income is uncertain at the moment). I’ve learned not to try to predict what the future will look like. My next stop was New Orleans, where I was excited to see my first Jazz Fest and to play all over town. Obviously, Jazz Fest is cancelled, all bars and restaurants are shut down, and everyone is staying inside. News from a few days ago lists New Orleans as one of the hardest hit cities in terms of infections and it’s looking like my plan to spend each month in a different city this year is going to have to allow for some adjustments.
My plan to travel the country and connect with as many people as possible is no longer an option for the time being, so I’m taking this time to refocus, adapt, and stay safe.