top of page

"Coronavirus and the day the music died in Nashville"

By Eliott C. McLaughlin, CNN

Updated 3:44 PM ET, Sun March 22, 2020

(CNN)Nashvillians still remember how that music used to make them smile. On a normal day, music bursts from the doors of Lower Broadway's honky tonks, sending a cacophony of country tunes into streets packed with revelers hopping bar to bar. The last week, however, has been haunting as the world-famous entertainment district was transformed to a ghost town when the city ordered bars shut down amid the coronavirus pandemic.

It's a reality across the country, but in Nashville, it was the second shot in a double barrel of disaster.

The closures came about two weeks after a deadly tornado ripped through parts of the city, canceling shows and destroying venues. Many musicians, along with the service industry, had just started to claw back, only to see their lifelines snipped again.

Carolyn Lethgo stands outside AJ's Good Time Bar, owned by singer Alan Jackson.

Downtown's silent, barren streets give bartender Carolyn Lethgo an "eerie feeling," said the lifelong resident who has been working in the service industry since she was 15. JesseLee Jones, frontman for Brazilbilly and the owner of Robert's Western World, hasn't seen anything like it in 26 years, he said.

"I have never, ever imagined that such a thing would be possible. It's like something on TV," Jones said.

Hard times have brought Nashville together in the past. Just as residents helped each other after the tornado, they're navigating the coronavirus together. While many musicians fret what coming weeks will bring, owners of some establishments are looking for ways to care for employees and artists.

Country singer Alan Jackson, for instance, gave workers at his AJ's Good Time Bar, including Lethgo, $1,000 each, the bartender said.

Other venues are getting creative to keep Nashville's spirit alive. Jack White's Third Man Records and Robert's Western World are two venues lending their stages so bands can live-stream performances to music lovers stuck at home -- and collect electronic tips.

"The biggest thing is the show must go on," said Emily Ann Cousins, Jones' fiancee and general manager of Robert's Western World. "The music that made Music City will continue, and we'll find a way to do it."

'Everything just came to a standstill'

For Nashville, Music City is more than a catchy moniker.

"Music is the heart of Nashville. It's everybody's bread and butter," said country fiddler Hyram Posey. "It's a big web, and at the center of it is the song."

Posey, 65, was at his Dickson home when the killer storm passed over March 3 and released a vicious tornado in west Nashville.

Musicians saw their livelihoods disrupted. Venues, badly damaged if not destroyed, canceled and postponed shows.

Some gigs were rescheduled to this week -- but then came Mayor John Cooper's March 15 directive to shut down the bars. On Sunday, as the city's tally of coronavirus cases hit 179, he issued stiffer restrictions, shutting down all but vital businesses and ordering residents to stay home except for essential needs.

"Everything just came to a standstill," Posey said. "People were still digging out from the tornado."

Coronavirus precautions have canceled Posey's shows from Nashville to New Mexico. He'd planned to travel to Fort Worth, Texas, next month to perform with Lonnie Spiker at the Academy of Western Artists Awards, where the pair are nominated for best western swing album. That's canceled, too.

A multi-genre musician who also plays piano, guitar and mandolin, he was the AWA's 2018

instrumentalist of the year. He typically does three or four studio sessions a week and plays at least four live shows a month.

"You'd think if anybody could get work, it'd be me. Things are slim right now," he said. "Nobody's got any money to do anything because they're worried about the eating."

It's not just impacting the country music for which the city is so well known, jazz and R&B singer Talisha Holmes said.


We're all in the same situation. Our lives depend on being around a bunch of people, being at a bar, being at a venue, being in close quarters," she said. "We're all in a really terrible situation, and we don't know how long it's going to last."

Musicians 'kind of make the city'

Holmes had shows canceled after the tornado, which spared the road where she lives but wrecked houses two streets over. Following the coronavirus closures, Holmes has had a half dozen shows nixed this month, including her 40th birthday gig at Rudy's Jazz Room, which was expected to draw a crowd.

"I was going to eat off of that for a while," she said. "The city is called Music City, and we kind of make the city, but nobody seems to care about the situation we're in."

Compounding matters is Holmes' autoimmune disorder, which has her hyper-vigilant as she goes about the most basic human tasks, such as picking up lunch. It doesn't help that she can't find hand sanitizer and disinfectant wipes.

"I just don't have the tools I need to stay safe," the Columbus, Ohio, native said. "I'm super concerned about my well-being. ... I may have to come home. I don't know."

Nashville -- with its Music Row, Grand Ole Opry, Ryman Auditorium and scores of recording studios -- boasts an incomparable music scene. Live music is a mainstay at countless bars and restaurants, and even the mall and airport, but that doesn't mean every picker and grinner can make a living.