Musicians grounded by pandemic still find ways to reach audiences

Posted 4/3/20

“Music,” poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote, “is the universal language of mankind” — and as the coronavirus pandemic spreads worldwide, music has served as a comforting balm to many …

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Musicians grounded by pandemic still find ways to reach audiences

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“Music,” poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote, “is the universal language of mankind” — and as the coronavirus pandemic spreads worldwide, music has served as a comforting balm to many people sheltering in place, even as the musicians who create it adjust to this temporary new reality and find new ways to reach audiences.

“We’ll make it through,” said Daniel Routh of the Siler City-based bluegrass band Nu-Blu. “I’m remaining positive.”

But the band — comprised of husband wife duo Daniel and Carolyn Routh of Siler City and members Justin Harrison of eastern North Carolina and Austin Hefflefinger of Pennsylvania — nevertheless is making necessary adjustments during the international crisis.

As the coronavirus pandemic began to take a foothold in the United States a few weeks ago, Routh and his bandmates found themselves suddenly grounded in the middle of a tour as venues began canceling shows.

“We were on the West Coast, halfway through a tour when we suddenly lost all our gigs,” Routh said.

They were also headed for Long Beach, California, with gigs along the way — they’d already played four sold-out shows en route — where they were booked to perform on a cruise ship.

“Halfway out there, they canceled the cruise,” he said. “And I’m like, ‘OK, this is getting serious.’ We lost three shows in a matter of 48 hours.”

Within another 24 hours, shows the band had lined up past April also started canceling.

“It snowballed,” Routh said. “One after the other.”

Gigs planned as far out as June remain uncertain.

“The good news,” Routh said, “is, most of those people have said ‘We’ll reschedule you.’”

Nevertheless, it’s been a tough blow for the members of Nu-Blu and other musicians who make a living recording and touring.

“For me as a band owner, I’m having the same stress as any other employer,” Routh said. “We’ve still got to keep everybody paid and keep the lights on.”

Chatham County bluegrass musician Tommy Edwards, like other musicians, hasn’t stopped playing music and writing songs, but he’s also been largely hamstrung by COVID-19.

Edwards normally plays a dozen or so gigs each month. Last October, he played 20.

“In March, I had seven cancellations and one postponement,” he said.

The upside?

“I’m getting a lot of practice time in,” Edwards said.

At age 74, Edwards is mindful of the need for social distancing to help prevent further spread of coronavirus.

“I’m being very careful,” he said. “I hope everyone will stay safe and we all sort of look out for each other.”

He’s staying at home with his wife, Cindy, spending a lot of time reading, writing songs, playing music at home, and getting exercise (while keeping a six-foot distance from others) on the walking trail at Central Carolina Community College near his home in Pittsboro.

“I’m enjoying time with my wife,” he said. “It’s nice to have a little slow down.”

Since the pandemic, Edwards has played one show: a solo set livestreamed to Facebook audiences on March 21 from the Bynum General Store as part of Bynum Front Porch’s “Live and Rockin’” series. Musicians Eric Bannean and Cynthia Raxter were also on the bill, but all played solo sets and kept a distance of six feet from each other.

Such livestream performances allow musicians to still play for their audiences, keeping them entertained while maintaining social distancing; such creative ways of making and broadcasting music have proven a positive experience for both audience and musicians.

“It felt pretty good,” Edwards said of the gig. “It was very gratifying to get to play, but I miss the audience a lot.”

The March 21 livestream reached an appreciative audience of nearly 3,000, though instead of cheering and clapping, they left comments on Facebook: “We all need some sunshine right now,” wrote listener Amy Sugg Burke. “Loving this performance,” wrote Selbe Bartlett.

Bynum Front Porch organizers are appreciative, too.

“We at Bynum Front Porch would like to extend a sincere thank you to everyone who have watched our livestream shows, given us uplifting messages, and sent us good vibes the past few weeks,” the non-profit posted on its Facebook page. “Together, we are learning to live a ‘new normal’ in this rapidly changing world.”

But the organization still needs funding to keep the music coming.

“We can only continue to exist and thrive with help from all of you,” they continued. “Without crowds filing in and out of the store on weekends, without our pith helmet being passed around the audience, and without having our donation jars filled up with ‘fives and tens’ our mission will come to a screeching halt.”

Listeners may donate to Bynum Front Porch through a link on Facebook.

Nu-Blu, finding itself having to turn around mid-tour and head back east to hunker down, has also gotten creative in reaching its fans.

While headed back to the East Coast, Nu-Blu made an impromptu pit stop, performing a livestreamed concert from the roadside in the California dessert.

“It was pretty cool,” said Routh.

Nu-Blu has also released a new song called “Horse Thieves and Moonshiners,” the lead single from the group’s upcoming full-length project set for release in summer 2020.

“Right now all of us in Nu-Blu are feeling the same way everyone else is feeling,” reads a statement released by the band. “We’re worried about loved ones, concerned about finances and seem to find ourselves watching the news or scrolling through social media hoping for that announcement that this is all over. But we realized there’s no better time than this, while we’re all together with our families to learn more about where we came from. It’s those stories that many times we only hear at holidays or family reunions, that we pass down through a verbal history. Now is the time to learn about that crazy story from mom or dad of something they did as a teenager, or uncover something really cool about your great-great grandparents. Who knows, they might have just been horse thieves and moonshiners.”

Nu-Blu is also continuing to reach its audience as the host of the nationally-syndicated weekly television program, “Bluegrass Ridge,” which airs on multiple channels including Heartland TV and The Family Channel and is streamed online through the Bluegrass Ridge app available at

“It’s a weird time,” said Routh, “but we’re going to stay positive. One cool thing about music is that it keeps us positive.”

Randall Rigsbee can be reached at


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