When singer-songwriter Jason Tyler Burton finally climbed back into the spotlight — on an actual stage, with live bodies in the crowd — during the first stop of the 2020 WYOmericana Caravan tour at the Wyo Theater in Sheridan in September, he was elated.
“It was a magical experience to have an audience again. You never take it for granted, but right now you especially don’t,” Burton said.
Burton’s sentiment was mirrored by other performers in the 2020 WYOmericana Caravan, which also stopped in Pinedale, Jackson, Rock Springs, Cheyenne and Laramie over the past month.
“I was giddy hearing live music through a full PA and hearing the audience react to it,” musician and tour organizer Aaron Davis said. I never thought I’d have that huge of a feeling, but it’s something that we really all missed.”
The COVID-19 era has deprived performers of what were once considered two of the most essential ingredients for practicing their craft: a stage and an audience. Although many have taken to live streaming since the pandemic hit, the instant feedback and validation of a crowd is lost.
The 2020 WYOmericana Tour — an annual tour featuring Wyoming-based musicians touring the Mountain West — almost didn’t happen. But with a little rescheduling, new protocols and some innovation, what unfolded might offer a new roadmap for musicians and promoters as they reinvent how to connect with live audiences during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Pivoting and scaling down
In May, organizers planning the sixth iteration of the WYOmericana Caravan cancelled the original spring and summer dates, announcing instead a Wyoming-only fall theater tour.
Two Sheridan-based acts, Sarah Sample and the Two Tracks, eventually dropped out of the lineup, but the other musicians signed on for the fall dates.
“We care deeply about the communities that this tour travels through as well as the dozen musicians and crew that would be on the road during this time,” co-founder Seadar Rose Davis wrote in a May press release. “We’re optimistic that fall will offer the reprieve we all need to enjoy concerts and stage time once again.”
Although September saw a spike of active COVID-19 case numbers throughout the state, the knowledge of effective protective measures as well as clear state and local guidelines allowed the show to go on, according to organizers.
While state guidelines specified that venues must limit their capacities to 250 people and follow social distancing guidelines, many local guidelines trimmed audiences down further and some venues took precautions that went beyond what was required by government orders.
The Gryphon Theater in Laramie provided a particularly potent example of how a venue can go above and beyond to make performers and fans feel safe, Davis said.
“Masks were mandatory even when you were seated,” Davis said. “It probably turned some people off, but I think it set the tone for how things can continue to work. Production-wise they were really dialed and professional.”
Davis and Rose, who are married and were formerly bandmates in Screen Door Porch, co-founded the WYOmericana Caravan in 2013. For five consecutive seasons, the tour brought together Wyoming musicians in the Americana, bluegrass and folk traditions and showcased their talents on stages throughout the intermountain West.
During the first season of the caravan, music writer Michael Segell profiled the newly founded tour for the New York Times. The article depicted rabid local fans, dionysian revelry, bar fights and a gun-packing Jalan Crossland.
According to Davis, Segell’s depiction was a bit embellished.
“There were certain things in that article that he had written before he ever saw the show or talked to us,” he said. “That was the one bar show out of like 17 shows that we played that year.”
But, Davis admits a celebratory energy that infused past tours has been dampened by COVID-19 protective measures.
“I do miss the energy of having people close to the performers,” he said. “Feeling their energy and hearing their hooting and hollering all contributes to what’s happening on stage.”
One member of the audience at the caravan’s show in the Silver Dollar Showroom of the Wort Hotel in Jackson apparently missed the hooting and hollering just as much as Davis. He repeatedly called to the stage for a drum solo and gave Davis a thumbs up when he looked up from his guitar and flashed a smile. Some musicians would be frustrated by the unprompted input, but Davis reveled in it.
“It’s not unwelcome at all from my perspective,” he said. “We totally get a kick out of it.”
The occasional rowdy crowd member aside, the shows in this year’s tour have consisted mostly of seated, silent and attentive audiences. While Wyoming audiences are famous for their swing dancing, venues have had to instate “Footloose” policies, as Davis calls them, which prohibit dancing.
The dearth of dancing has perhaps dampened the spirits of many, but it also provides musicians with a unique opportunity.
“In that listening environment, the meaning of songs comes through a little more clearly,” Laramie musician Shawn Hess said.
All three acts — Aaron Davis and the Mystery Machine, Jason Tyler Burton and Shawn Hess — were able to unearth some of the slower and more thoughtful tracks from their catalogues for the watchful audiences. Davis even performed a brand new waltz he had written and arranged for his band over the summer.
“It’s not really a song we would usually play in a 40-minute bar set because it’s a waltz and it’s slower,” he said. “But, we worked it in on this tour.”
Room for storytelling
Perhaps no one benefited more from the increased attention to lyrical content than Burton.
The Pinedale-based singer-songwriter is a masterful musical storyteller who manages to balance vivid specificity with relatability in his songwriting. The tales he weaves depict people in the rural southeast towns of his childhood as well as the western locales he has made home in adulthood. Like his bio reads, “he is careful with the places and people he writes about.”
Burton opened his Jackson set with “Colorado Contraband,” an upbeat tune about a Jack Mormon hauling a load of Colorado weed over the Utah border and losing the police in a chase through the desert. Even a couple in the back, who had been mostly fixated on their burgers and fries up to this point, swiveled around to discover the fate of the “good old Mormon boy.”
Later in the set, Burton embodied the character of an old man looking back at the degradation of his hometown in Kentucky coal country. The man witnessed loved ones die in the mines, watched the company leave its workers empty handed and saw opiate addiction grip the town.
“I don’t know how to fix a thing that’s this broken. I only know that the outside world don’t care,” Burton sang.
Many of the details from the song were drawn from Burton’s father’s family. His grandfather worked in a coal mine in Harlan County, Kentucky and his father moved away from Kentucky to escape a life in the mines. In Wyoming, the song has struck a chord with listeners with ties to coal or other extractive industries.
“It’s interesting to see how it’s resonated with people in Wyoming,” Burton said. “A lot of the themes in that song work just as well for the whole country as they do in Kentucky.”
There is a time-honored tradition on the WYOmericana Caravan tour that all performers gather onstage for an encore set after the last band plays.
“This is a unique tour in that you get to know everyone and hopefully get to play with them,” Davis told the audience at the Silver Dollar Showroom.
Then the musicians launched into a seven-person rendition of the Byrds’ “You Ain’t Going Nowhere.”
The encore tradition gets at the core of what the caravan is about: community building. The Wyoming music scene generally consists of isolated pockets of part-time musicians. But, for a month or two, these performers gather to swap stories, jam and share their talents.
For organizers, the ideal end result is that reverence for Wyoming’s diverse musical traditions spreads throughout the state (and sometimes beyond).
“Independent music is not as much a supported field in the arts, particularly because a lot of people who are independent musicians might not have gone through traditional training,” said Taylor Craig, the creative arts specialist at the Wyoming Arts Council and unofficial WYOmericana Caravan support staff. “But independent music is one of the biggest drivers of social cohesion in our towns.”
This year, the tour was anything but easy to coordinate. Performers had to stay in separate hotel rooms, drive different vehicles and make sure to slip on a mask whenever they stepped off stage. But because of the extra work that organizers put in, they pulled off a showcase of the vitality and passion of Wyoming’s musicians.
“The seed was planted over a year ago and it took a longer growing season to realize the fruits of the labor, but the musical and collaborative harvest was well worth it,” Davis wrote in a Facebook post the morning after the tour came to a close.