Pollstar Cover May 18, 2020 featuring Travis McCready. Seen Here performing with Bishop Gunn at Houston’s NRG Stadium opening for the Rolling Stones (Photo by Linda Stroud/Courtesy of Travis McCready)
Since when is a 229-person show, especially one by a relatively unknown artist in an obscure tertiary market like Fort Smith, Ark., (population 87,845) the stuff of an international media circus? Especially one that might not even happen?
“It’s been all day, every day,” says Travis McCready, from his home in Natchez, Miss., where he is practicing and fielding media requests a week out from playing what could be the most significant performance of his career. “A bunch of major networks are coming to film everything. A guy from Getty is coming, too, he just contacted me yesterday, he’s coming to shoot for the entire day … The last three days, it’s been pretty exciting.”
This from someone whose former band, Bishop Gunn, opened for The Rolling Stones at NRG Stadium, played dates with Guns N’ Roses and Lynyrd Skynyrd, was repped by William Morris Endeavor and who Rolling Stone called “Southern rock’s must-see new band” of 2019.
“It’s unexpected and it’s global,” says Mike Brown, GM of TempleLive, the former Masonic Hall in Fort Smith where McCready was scheduled to perform Friday, May 15. “I’ve fielded stuff from Ireland, Spain, the UK. I’ve got venues reaching out from all over the world to help us do this. ‘Good Morning America,’ ‘CBS This Morning,’ ‘The Today Show’ are talking to us. It just shows you how important live music is. It applies to everybody.”
Indeed, since some eight weeks ago, when the coronavirus epidemic shuttered much of America’s economy, and really most of the world’s economy, there’s been but one question ceaselessly asked: When are concerts coming back? It’s a multibillion-dollar question, one that speaks to the universal importance of the live experience that could, in part, be answered at McCready’s TempleLive show, the first ticketed, socially distanced show on record, if it can be pulled off – which a week out is far from given.
“Arkansas is one of the least impacted states in the country,” says TempleLive’s Brown, who says there’s been few if any deaths in the county. “Word on that, on the fourth of May, was that Gov. Hutchinson was going to announce what the phase one reopening plan is for sporting venues, large venues, outdoor venues. So, we said, ‘OK, we’re going to crystal ball it a little bit and say probably 50% capacity, CDC guidelines in place.’ So we went in and built out our COVID protocol for all of the seats, you’re six feet from somebody that’s not in your group or fan pod, and we reduced the capacity to 20%, and announced it.”
The Outlier: Travis McCready was set to play the country’s first ticketed show since the beginning of the COVID-19 shutdown at TempleLive in Fort Smith, Ark. Here performing with Bishop Gunn on New Year’s 2019 at the Orlando House of Blues.
Brown, as it turned out, was a few days off. The governor announced he wasn’t opening events until May 18th – three days after McCready’s scheduled May 15th show. And the initial state guidelines called for gatherings of 50 or fewer, so even if the TempleLive show were moved to Monday, a show with 229 would be in violation of the guidelines.
“So now we’re in a conversation,” says Brown. “It got out to the governor’s office that this show was on the books, and he’s like, ‘Well, let me look into it.’ Gov. Hutchinson’s done a fantastic job with how he’s managed the state, and it’s really one of the first states coming back online to some sort of normalcy. So we had a phone call, we spoke with the Arkansas Department of Health, and we’re actively communicating, and we’ve got a legal team that’s involved and talking to their attorneys. So we’re looking at a solution to where we can pull this show off next Friday, and it is safe and secure and everybody’s onboard with it.”
To that end, the 1,100-capacity theater, which is part of a 53,000-square-foot historic building with three ballrooms, a restaurant and a club in the basement, has only put a fifth of its tickets on sale. The Ticketmaster seating chart, which has people sitting in “pods,” with people who know each other, looks sparse. Brown explained he will still be bringing in a full staff to “make it as easy on the fans as possible.”
The room will be sanitized with disinfectant that is fogged through a sprayer along with the use of touchless thermometers checking patrons upon arrival. Bathroom use will be limited and beverages will be served with lids or pre-packaged cocktails, beer, or water. This takes significant outlay and Brown has invested in best practices in terms of sanitization and health and is still keeping tickets at $20 – the venue doesn’t expect to reap much if any profit.
As the economy slowly opens back up, medical experts, politicians and industry experts alike are strongly advocating caution – which right now may not be helping McCready and Brown’s cause. “While we absolutely recognize the need for venues to get back to business, people to be able to earn a paycheck, and the intrinsic value of live music, we should not turn a blind eye to the real-life consequences of operations coming back online too soon,” Jim Digby, president and founder of the Event Safety Alliance, tells Pollstar.
“This decision should be guided by the available science, as it’s unquestionably not in our best interest to risk the potential for significant setbacks linked to our ill-advised haste.”
– Ticketmaster Chart
The New Real: The seats available as of May 7 for McCready’s TempleLive performance indicate how the seating will be spaced out in “fan pods.”
But Arkansas is farther along in reopening than most states and Brown is arguing that because the state is allowing churches to have higher-capacity gatherings, authorities should let music performances – something Brown holds in the highest regard – operate under the same capacities with the stricter safety protocols he’s firmly put in place. “The virus doesn’t know whether it’s in a church or a high school gymnasium or a music venue,” he says. “So if you’re going to have public assembly inside of a building, it shouldn’t matter what the reason is. Whether it was a political rally or a Dungeons & Dragons convention, it doesn’t matter – public assembly is public assembly.”
This particular assembly with McCready, however, might never have happened if Brown hadn’t traveled to the International Entertainment Buyers Association conference in Nashville in October 2016. “The first IEBA I went to, I saw Bishop Gunn at a WME showcase,” Brown recalls. “After the show, I sought them out. I was like, ‘Hey, I wanted to let you guys know, that was great. I really enjoyed what you guys did.’ It was the second coming of what I thought was real rock ‘n’ roll – in the opinion of a real estate developer that’s now in the music business.”
Brown is cut from an interesting cloth: A real estate developer who worked developing hotels and who is also a true-blue believer in the power of live music. For some three years he’s run Beaty Capital Group’s venue play which operates three Masonic lodge venues, in Wichita and Cleveland in addition to Fort Smith. He cites seeing ZZ Top’s mid-’80s “Afterburner Tour” in Tulsa when he was all of 15 as well as Pink Floyd at Texas Stadium as having a profound impact on him. At the same time, he name-checks far more contemporary fare including Illiterate Light, Reignwolf, Grace Potter and especially Ashley McBryde, who WME Nashville co-head Becky Gardenhire turned him on to. Hearing her perform “Girl Goin’ Nowhere,” he says, left him and Nashville’s entire Basement East crying.
McCready, too, has an emotional heft in his singing and musicianship. He’s the real-deal Delta swamp blues, rock & stomp soul man, with a tonally rich voice that evokes perhaps no one as much as The Black Crowes’ Chris Robinson’s sublime howl (with a bit of Joe Cocker swagger/contortion thrown in). He formerly worked 10- to 12-hour shifts as a steel fitter in Natchez making massive ductwork for nuclear power plants from the age of 18 to 26 and played music at night. “I quit when I was 26,” he says. “Gave away my tools and basically went full time music. That’s when we started Bishop Gunn.”
Until this past February when they disbanded, Bishop Gunn was on the rise, landing WME’s Braeden Rountree as their agent and Aubrey Preston, a philanthropist and preservationist, as band manager.
Maybe You Can get What You Want? The Rolling Stones pose for a shot with Bishop Gunn backstage at Houston’s NRG Stadium.
The group was based out of Preston’s farm in Leipers Fork just outside of Nashville. They recorded four songs from their debut, Natchez, at Muscle Shoals Sound Studio in 2017 with producer Mark Neill (The Black Keys, JD McPherson, Old 97s), which turned the musicians into serious road dogs.
“We weren’t at the farm much last year,” McCready says. “We did 250 shows, 300 days on the road, 14 countries and over 40 states in 11 months.” The band has opened for a number of hard-touring acts including The Marcus King Band, Gov’t Mule and Blackberry Smoke.
In 2019 they opened for Slash and Myles Kennedy on seven European dates as well as for Guns N’ Roses at Wichita’s INTRUST Bank Arena on their massive “Not In This Lifetime Tour.”
In surely what was one of the greatest moments in McCready’s life, his band opened for The Rolling Stones at Houston’s NRG Stadium on July 27, 2019. “We pulled up in a Chevy van,” McCready recalls. “They thought we were crew. Then asked us where the tour bus was.”
His interaction with Mick Jagger? Also not the stuff of rock ‘n’ roll dreams – but it left McCready with an awesome story: “We’re standing all in this line, side to side, and the photographer is snapping these pictures after I come off stage,” the singer remembers. “It was only a 45-minute set, but I come off stage soaking wet – that happens if it’s a full rock show, whether it’s 45 minutes or two hours. And Mick had his hand on my back and as the camera was clicking, he never broke the pose and I just heard his voice go, ‘You are wet.’ And I was like, ‘Sorry, Mick.’”
Bishop Gunn had just finished recording an album with Jacquire King (Kings of Leon, Norah Jones, Tom Waits) when the band broke up in February and the record shelved. Since then, McCready has struck out on his own, playing a few shows and doing a regular “Travis Tuesday” livestream on Facebook, which he started a good month before the web became flooded with live performances.
On the May 12 edition of his weekly Facebook Live performance May 12, which was streamed from TempleLive, McCready first gave an inkling that the show might be in jeopardy. With his hound dog Van in tow (named for Vincent Van Gogh), walking the corridors and through the various rooms of the historic Masonic Hall building that dates back to 1929, he acknowledged the comeback show all the world seemed fixated on was in peril.
“Is Arkansas canceled Friday night?” Mc- Cready read from the Facebook Live comments. “Yeah, man, this governor guy, he issued a cease-and-desist. So I cease to exist Friday night, unless we pull some kind of a different move – talking some talks to maybe move until Monday, then it’s legal. It was only hours ago that we got the news. They didn’t give us a ‘no’ or anything like that. Before then they were playing ball with the possibility, then all of a sudden … I’ll tell you what, it was pretty cool watching a press conference with the governor of Arkansas knowing my show was depending on it …”
– House Of The Holy
House of the Holy: TempleLive, located in Fort Smith, Ark., is housed in a 53,000-square foot former Masonic Temple that dates back to 1929 and is on the National Registry of Historic Places.
Gov. Asa Hutchinson officially announced May 12 that the state’s health department would be issuing a cease-and-desist order “directing that the concert not take place,” because of the timing of the state’s lockdown measures, which is allowing arenas and theaters to reopen on Monday, May 18 and limiting audiences.
“It’s out of time,” the governor said. “Can you imagine what reaction we would have had across Arkansas if we set the date for May 11 to open up restaurants but a bunch of them just decided to do that on May 5? You can’t just arbitrarily determine when the restrictions are lifted. That is something that is done based upon a public health requirement.”
Hutchinson, however, said last weekend the 50-person limit would be revised to allow venues to fill to one-third capacity if they submit a plan approved by the state – which would allow TempleLive to add roughly 140 more people to the show.
Though McCready and Brown were determined to put the show at TempleLive on May 15, during his Facebook Live session Travis revealed he may be playing a show on Saturday, May 16, in Missouri, reportedly at the Tall Pines Distillery in Pineville, capacity 400. “The Show Me State” may be becoming “The Show Must Go On State” with its less strict comeback statutes.
But on Wednesday evening, May 13, still at loggerheads with the state, Mike Brown gave a terse press conference at TempleLive where he had four very succinct questions for the Arkansas Department of Health and its director, Dr. Nate Smith. First, he asked, if Travis McCready was playing at a church two blocks from here would it be legal? If the answer is yes (which it is), is there a greater health risk at that church then there would be at Temple Live? (There would be, as TempleLive is instituting stricter social distancing guidelines, using state of the art sanitation, mandating masks, non-contact thermometers, etc.) If the answer is yes and there is a greater risk, he asked they provide scientific data that shows that transmission of COVID-19 or any other communicable disease is greater at TempleLive (That’s not possible). And fourthly, if there’s no scientific data supporting this reasoning, he asked why TempleLive was not under the same restriction guidelines as these other facilities?
Instead of answering his well-reasoned questions or capitulating, over the next 12 hours the State of Arkansas dropped the hammer. The Arkansas Alcoholic Beverage Control suspended TempleLive’s license, claiming Travis McCready’s concert would endanger public health and safety. The caveat, however, was that if TempleLive publicly announced the concert was canceled, the licenses would be returned and they could try to get the show going Monday, May. 18.
As most of us have learned the hard way, and sometimes incredibly unfairly, there is no beating City Hall or the Little Rock statehouse. In a dramatic press conference
at TempleLive on Thursday, May 14, with cameras from across the world trained on Mike Brown and Travis McCready as well as Lance Beaty (the principal of Beaty Capitol Group,) their lawyer John Scott and Brown’s daughter Lauren, the promoter gave a fiery speech in which he had little choice but to pull the plug on the show.
“We fought the law and the law won,” Brown said comparing the government’s actions to the movies “Minority Report” and “Westworld.”
“Earlier today, Alcohol Beverage Control from the State Of Arkansas showed up with a document,” he said. “They physically entered the building, ripped our permits and licenses off the wall and virtually shut us down from conducting business in this facility that we’ve built and developed here in this city. They did this all the time while we were evaluating and having discussions at the state level over a cease and desist order that was issued out of the Arkansas Department of Health.”
Saying it was “against our will,” Brown explained that TempleLive is “applying to move the show to May 18th to be in compliance with the directive from the Arkansas Department of Health and the governor’s office.”
Bishop Gunn, who opened for The Rolling Stones, Guns N’ Roses, Slash, Lynyrd Skynyrd and others, broke up in February. From left: Burne Sharp, Drew Smithers, Travis McCready and Ben Lewis.
It’s a strange result in a strange time. Why would the state insist on moving a show three days back, when the original show had been orchestrated nearly a month in advance in good faith with the CDC’s guidelines firmly in place? It’s a question for which there may never be a satisfactory answer.
But even if McCready isn’t playing the first comeback show and Mike Brown isn’t opening up his venue May 15, these two passionate individuals and their teams should get all the credit in the world for their willingness to fight the fight and bring the live business back. This they did while following and investing in the safest practices possible, while trying to work with the state and community in an attempt to give yearning fans a taste of live music and our industry a bit of hope for how it may come back
“We’ve had Grammy winners, Ashley McBryde and the Rival Sons, and they’re anxious to get back here,” Brown continued. “The agent community has been reaching out to us as the first venue to try to bring something back to normalcy. And we have some significant acts that typically wouldn’t play in a venue this size that are watching right now to see how the state of Arkansas is treating artists, venue operators and, in general, the people who are here trying to make a living to feed their family.”
When McCready took to the podium mic, he was uncharacteristically terse. “Good afternoon, my name is Travis McCready,” he said. “I’m here to play music in the safest way that I can whenever permitted. Thank you.”
And with those few words he and Lauren Brown lit into a gorgeous acoustic version of “Mother Music,” from the band’s shelved album. It was the perfect song for the situation and wisely let the music do all the talking.
Additional reporting by Sarah Pittman.