Staying alive
Livestreaming, Rolling Revues and other tricks in the pandemic musician's 'toolbag'

Staying alive

The Stillhouse Junkies on one of their impromptu "Rolling Revue" performances. When a tour in England as well as a summer on the festival circuit evaporated because of the pandemic, the trio began offering frontyard and driveway concerts via its social media as a way to keep playing. "We were feeling pretty depressed that we weren't playing much," lead vocalist Fred Kozak said. "The Rolling Revue was a way to pivot to something else."/Courtesy photo

Chris Aaland - 07/23/2020
Back in before times, I’d stare at the clock on Friday afternoons wondering when it would be appropriate to ditch work and head to the bar. Usually, the yearnings started around 3 p.m. By 4, I’d be barreling down the road. In the summer, that meant meeting my buddies at The Balcony to slam a few happy hour pints and watch a local band.
In this new normal – at least for most of my friends and me – these chances are few and far between. Call me a sheep or a snowflake, but I’m holed up in the house. While it’s a bummer to those of us hankering for a cold one with our pals, it’s financially devastating for bands that have lost gigs. It also takes away their best chance to sell CDs, T-shirts, koozies and other merchandise.

More than a half-dozen local artists have released full-length albums or CDs during the pandemic or the months leading up to it. Sales, other than donations to crowdsourcing to help with production costs, are few and far between.

Durango singer/songwriter Caitlin Cannon recently moved to Nashville part-time seeking a real music career. Over the past eight years prior to that, she fronted local groups like Caitlin Cannon & the Artillery and The Cannondolls, playing smaller local venues and street festivals while sporadically releasing recordings with her bands. The move to Nashville meant recruiting a group of seasoned veterans to record with, hiring a producer and even seeking management to handle publicity and bookings.

“My whole life was going to change,” Cannon told me last week. “And then it didn’t change at all, which is so sad. I was really upset because I had invested a lot of energy into my release cycle. Everybody was pulling their releases because they have teams of people helping them strategize how to be successful. The only way artists can make money off their albums is touring.”

The Huntsville, Ala., native had completed a record called “The TrashCannon Album,” which had been pushed back due to a variety of reasons. Instead of releasing it, she began releasing singles, some with professionally produced videos. She attended the Americana Music Association convention in Nashville last fall, making professional connections that could advance her career. One of those contacts was Denis Grabill, owner and booking agent for Black Oak Artists, which has a roster of more than 25 up-and-coming country and Americana acts. He quickly signed Cannon to Black Oak.

“Denis has been around to give me advice when I needed it, like starting this weekly livestream called ‘Married to Monday,’” she said. “We’re getting creative about how we’re going to do things when they open up.” One piece of advice was to release a few advance singles like “Toolbag” and “Deliver.”

“We’re in a singles market, and since I had released my other recorded music as Caitlin Cannon & the Artillery and The Cannondolls, Caitlin Cannon didn’t have a presence on digital,” she explained. “I kind of needed to do something to try and build that presence. By the time the record came out, I had some pretty good press.” Major publications like Billboard and Saving Country Music raved about her, drawing the attention of radio programmers across the country.

When the May 15 release date came around for “The TrashCannon Album,” Cannon and her team didn’t hesitate. “I’ve put upwards of 30 grand into that record,” she said, adding that she had to cut hair to pay for it. “I don’t know if I can do that to my body again.”

Cannon said all she really wants to do is build a cult following around the album. “I just want to connect with the people who get what I do … people who probably have accumulated a lot of pain in their life, but at the same time they probably have a good sense of humor about that,” she said.

Snarky and sassy with autobiographical lyrics about personal battles like alcoholism, failed relationships and her brother’s incarceration in the Alabama prison system, “The TrashCannon Album” is an early frontrunner for my record of the year. Cannon, who splits time between Durango and Nashville and still cuts hair to make a living, will have to look toward 2021 for her big breakthrough.

“I really do want to make another record, but I’m going to have to do the whole label shopping thing,” she said. “I also think that I need to get in the zone of self-promotion again.”

Another local act that was poised for big things in 2020 is StillHouse Junkies. The Durango-based bluegrass and Americana trio signed with Blue Sun Entertainment, which counts the jamgrass group, The Wooks, among its artists. StillHouse’s first tour of England in late March was on the horizon, as were numerous summer festival dates. The group released its second full-length album (and first as a trio), “Calamity,” in midwinter.

“This was going to be a pretty big year for us. We felt like the opportunities were going to lead to other stuff – like Grey Fox, the John Hartford Festival, IBMA,” Fred Kozak, guitarist, mandolin player, lead vocalist and chief songwriter for the Junkies, said. “It’s been an ongoing game of trying not to get our hopes up, but being somewhat hopeful that not everything is going to be wiped out. We cancelled well over 100 shows.”

Kozak and his bandmates, bassist Cody Tinnin and violinist Alissa Wolf, find some solace in the fact that the economic repercussions of COVID-19 aren’t exclusive. “No band has been able to continue touring through this,” he said. “There’s a bit of solidarity in that Bruce Springsteen is sitting at home and watching TV just like the rest of us.”

Instead of dwelling on the lack of national dates, the Junkies took matters into their own hands by starting the “Rolling Revue” in April, which brings live shows to fans’ driveways and front yards. “We were feeling pretty depressed that we weren’t playing much,” Kozak said. “The Rolling Revue was a way to pivot to something else, and we feel like we’re giving something to the community. It’s cool to get that energy back from people. Playing to two people who are really stoked is not all that different from playing to a big crowd.”

The band floats signup sheets on its social media, which quickly fills up. There’s no cost associated with it, although many Rolling Revue hosts are generous with tips. “We’ve been to all corners of the town and county. July filled up in a day,” he said.

Meanwhile, there’s “Calamity,” a collection of Kozak’s best writing in songs like “Mountains of New Mexico,” “Burn it Down” and the “Shackleton” trilogy that the band debuted at the 2019 Telluride Bluegrass Festival. Tinnin and Wolf play a bigger role than ever in this album, adding harmonies and a strong musical backbone.

The Junkies will have likely moved on from “Calamity” by the time touring resumes. “We have an album done that we could basically record pretty soon,” said Kozak. “For us, the next big push is to try and find a label to help us put out new music without having to do the crowdfunding. We’ve crowdfunded all of our albums so far.”

That new record will follow a pattern of songs with a sense of place. Tinnin’s “Five Doors Down in Leadville” and the Wolf/Kozak instrumental, “Johnny Mac” were already part of the live setlists before the lockdown. Their year-old digital single and concert staple, “(Mancos Kind of) Saturday Night,” will likely find a home on the new album as well.

In the meantime, they’ve received help from national nonprofits like the Grammy Foundation’s MusiCares and the IBMA Bluegrass Trust. “There’s a lot of positive energy, and a lot of people who didn’t lose their income are stepping up to contribute,” said Kozak. The Junkies have paid this forward by participating in fundraisers like April’s CERF the Airwaves event, which benefitted local musicians, and last weekend’s Spirit of Grey Fox event that raised money for the IBMA Bluegrass Trust. They shared the bill with artists like Sam Bush, Leftover Salmon, Nickel Creek and dozens more in the four-day online concert that mixed new performances in isolation with vintage film and sound recordings from Grey Fox’s festival archives.

Others to release music in COVID-19 times include People We Know, a bluegrass band that dropped its debut album last December, only to see Meltdown and summer gigs dry up; old-time musician Brendan Shafer, whose brand-new EP was recorded with his Six Dollar String Band mates; country crooner Tyller Gummersall, whose “Heartbreak College” saw a mid-spring release; Sunny Gable (leader of Sunny & the Whiskey Machine), whose solo EP “Little Things” will be available July 31; and Americana songwriter Thom Chacon – a bigger thing in Europe than in his own hometown. Chacon’s latest album is nearly complete, but he’ll follow Cannon down the singles highway for the time being.

As local music fans, the best we can do is buy music, schedule backyard performances or drop a few bucks into a virtual tip jar. I already have digital copies of all the StillHouse Junkies material, but a “Calamity” LP would sound even better on my turntable. Just as I’d rather buy produce from a local farmer than a big box store, I’d rather spend my entertainment dollars on my friends and neighbors.
 
And it washes down easy with a cold pint of Mexican Logger, Colorado Kolsch or Class VI IPA on my back deck.

Ride a raft with old Huck Finn? Email me at chrisa@gobrainstorm.net.
 

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