How I Made a Record in Nashville When I Was Quarantined 1000 Miles Away
Updated: Jun 20, 2021
I had been writing songs for my next record, entitled APPALACHIA: AMERICAN STORIES, since I finished my previous album, DUST BOWL: AMERICAN STORIES, three years before. I was saving every penny that I could manage in order to make this new record and promote it. It's expensive to make records. DUST BOWL had cost me $25,000 for the players and my co-producer... and then was promoting it, which cost even more.
Records come out every day, and not just from independent artists like me, but from major artists with all kinds of money and teams of people behind them. If you don't properly promote a new record you might as well not make it in the first place, because it won't go anywhere. Ever drop a rock into the water? Yeah, just like that. Splash and gone.
Viper / Fusonia, near Hazard, where my family is from
By the early part of 2020 I was nearly done with writing the songs for APPALACHIA. Part of my writing process is also make demo recordings in my own studio. I do my own vocals and guitars, of course, but I also put together rhythm section parts, as well as cobble together the parts that I am hearing in my head for each particular song. I have gotten pretty good at using a combination of virtual instruments and parts played by the musicians on my previous albums. In my software I can re-pitch them and warp them on the time axis to approximate what I am thinking of. The public is never going to hear these demos, mind you - I make them only to provide an example to the musicians when it comes time to cut the real tracks in the studio. It's how I write.
So by early 2020 I was starting to plan when I'd start recording. I figured that by the time I got back from touring in Scotland, it would be August, and I'd have enough money for the musicians, and the mixing and mastering I intentionally didn't book any shows after August because I was leaving time open to record in Nashville. I couldn't wait to repeat the process that me and my co-producer Jeff Silverman of Palette Music had done three years earlier with DUST BOWL. It was exciting to think about.
And then came COVID-19, and the whole world changed.
On March 11 I was heading out to play some shows in California's central valley, starting in Bakersfield then out to Tehachapi, Fresno, and then back around to Bakersfield again. By the time I boarded the first plane from Providence to Denver, the Coronavirus was all over the news. There were whispers about states closing restaurants, bars and venues, but it hadn't happened yet. At 30,000 feet I was really worried that everyone would be scared to go out, and I would be walking onto the stage in front of ten people...or maybe zero people. Worse yet, I'd fly 3,000 miles and then find out my shows were canceled outright. The entire trip would be a bust and I'd go home having lost money.
When I got into the small Bakersfield airport, things were starting to change. No one was wearing masks yet, but the car rental places had hand sanitizer dispensers scattered across the counter.
The next night I played out in Tehachapi, which is a beautiful spot in the mountains. There's a small but absolutely wonderful venue there called Fiddler's Crossing. It was Friday, March 13. The owner was (and is!) the very agreeable Peter Cutler. He and his crew got me set up sound-wise very quickly. I had brought my own microphone, but Peter had a disinfectant spray for his much better microphone, so I used his. One of his crew went across the street and got food for us all, and we ate, mostly in silence. We didn't know what to expect, or if anyone would show up.
Fiddler's Crossing Show, March 13, 2020
Thankfully, they did. There were only a few empty seats that night. After the show Peter took the stage and announced that my concert was the last one that they would be doing until further notice. When? It depended on the virus. It was out of his hands, of course.
The next night I was playing at a beautiful house venue called The Harmony House in Fresno, which is run by a friend of mine and great musician in her own right, Gina Lenee. She had performed at an Indie Collaborative event that I had emceed in San Francisco two years before, and she had invited me to come and perform there.
Harmony House in Fresno, California
That show also went off very well, and the room was filled. They had brought in a great chef and his crew, and they laid out excellent food and drink for everyone. But again, this was to be the last show that this venue would host until further notice. Gina did a great job, and I even got to sleep in the guest cottage out back.
Every show I played that week was the "last" one that each venue would hold. As I write this eight months later, they are all still closed to live audiences. Fiddler's Crossing did re-open for virtual concerts in July, but no audience in the room, of course. There was an article in the local newspaper that mentioned this, and my final show there on March 13th.
I visited some friends out there, including David De Cristofaro, who is an excellent mentor in the business of music. Besides hanging out a little and grabbing some great barbecue in Bakersfield, he had actually driven out to Tehachapi with me and attended my show. The day before I left David and I both had breakfast in Bakersfield with Rick Davis, whom I had met on the set of OILDALE, a movie that I had a small part in. He was the musical director of that feature film, which should be coming to the streaming services soon. A keyboard player, Rick had been one of the "Buckaroos," which were band for country music legend Buck Owens. After we shot that film Rick took me to Buck's old studio and let me drink in some legend dust. That was a special treat. Rick is also father to Jonathan Davis of heavy metal band KORN fame.
Sitting at Buck Owens' mixing board in Bakersfield
By the time that I returned home, COVID-19 was going strong, and the world was spiraling into lock-down. All of my gigs right through Scotland were canceled or postponed. I was supposed to go to New York city and start rehearsing for the Indie Collaborative show at Carnegie Hall, scheduled for April. It was canceled, of course. New York city was hit very hard by the virus and they closed everything. Broadway was dark. Theaters of every type were shuttered. Restaurants, too, except for take-out in some cases.
What was I going to do? My main source of income, performing live shows, was over. How was I going to pay for the new album? So I did some calculations, considering the money that I already had, and factoring in what I would make from royalties, producing demos for other songwriters, and the like. I would fire up my home studio and work hard at making money from it. In addition, I would double down on some of the writing that I had been doing for some clients of mine. I was also pretty good at making music videos, so perhaps I could earn some money that way, too. Staying home, me and my family would have no expenses beyond normal living. I could focus completely on making money to pay for the album, and maybe even write another song for it.