Coronavirus

Nashville Music Scene's First Coronavirus Survivor Speaks Out: 'I've Never Felt More Influential in This Town'

Nashville
Adam Gray / Barcroft Media via Getty Images

A general view of Lower Broadway in Nashville, Tenn.

The coronavirus has officially hit Nashville's music community.

CMT closed its offices March 10 to thoroughly sanitize the premises after an artist manager who had attended the network's tornado relief telethon, held in conjunction with WSMV-TV Nashville on March 5, tested positive for COVID-19. CMT executives who were present at that event were asked to work from home for the following two weeks as a preventive measure.

Black River took similar steps, closing March 10 for a deep clean and requiring five staff members who had a 15-minute meeting with the infected manager to work remotely through March 20.

Plenty on Music Row were skeptical for a time about COVID-19, a new strain of coronavirus. But as the number of infections soars in the U.S. and across the globe, the impact on the community of the artist manager's diagnosis is a confirmation that the bug is real, and it's not just somebody else's problem.

"I do joke that I've shut down CMT, Black River and maybe a few other Music Row offices — and the entire Williamson County school system," says the manager. "I've never felt more influential in this town."

The manager agreed to speak with the Billboard Country Update, believing it was important for the community to take the COVID-19 threat seriously. Even though a large portion of Nashville's music community has already identified him, he spoke on the condition of anonymity to protect his children's identities.

"We've had these outbreaks before, but this one seems a little different, a little more aggressive," he says. "There's maybe a little more panic in the air."

That panic mushroomed from a little to a lot over the past week as the number of U.S. coronavirus cases exploded, just weeks after the White House minimized the virus' impact. With no cohesive plan in place to combat COVID-19 — and with the president openly attempting to manipulate infection data for the best possible marketing position — the stock market nose-dived, businesses pulled back, and individual states placed limits on public gatherings, in some instances banning events of more than 100 people.

That hit the country music business hard. Dan + Shay, Blake Shelton, Reba McEntire, the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Sturgill Simpson, Dwight Yoakam and the Zac Brown Band were among the artists who postponed tours or individual dates. Loretta Lynn, who at age 87 has weathered a stroke and broken a hip in recent years, was quarantined by her doctors to avoid coming in contact with infected visitors.

The Stagecoach country music festival in Indio, Calif., was delayed from April to the fall; RodeoHouston, the Tin Pan South Songwriters Festival and Europe's C2C music festival were canceled; the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum closed for a thorough cleaning through March 31; and the Grand Ole Opry announced it would turn away audiences through April 4. The lattermost's WSM-AM Nashville show will air as an in-studio live broadcast on Saturdays during the interim, but the Opry will not be held on other nights during the week.

Meanwhile, numerous companies have instructed or encouraged their employees to work from home, including Beasley Media and Billboard.

"Nobody wants to lose money, nobody wants to be sitting at home when they could be out singing, but no one wants the country shut down either," says the manager with COVID-19. "At some level, maybe that's the choice we're faced with. I don't fault anyone [for] taking steps that may turn out later to be unnecessary. But it may turn out later that, thank goodness, we did it right, because we had no idea how bad this thing was going to get."

Conflicting messages and a lack of data created much of the nation's current panic. President Donald Trump suggested in his first address to the nation on Feb. 26 that the number of U.S. coronavirus cases might be capped at 15. Nine days later, he declared a national emergency, with more than 1,000 infections and 41 deaths reported across 48 of the 50 states.

Most people who are infected are likely to recover. The manager, who probably contracted COVID-19 during a trip to Colorado on March 1-3, sweated out the bulk of his symptoms in a 48-hour window after he began to feel sick on March 6. He suffered body aches, chills, a runny nose, a dry cough, a sore throat and intestinal issues, while his temperature peaked at 101.5 degrees. But elderly citizens and people with compromised immune systems are particularly vulnerable to the virus, and that's part of the reason that the manager insisted on getting diagnosed.

"I didn't come in here for my own health," he told nurses at the hospital. "I came in here for everybody else's."

In fact, he was repeatedly rebuffed in his attempts to get tested. Health care workers told him short supplies required them to ration the tests and he did not fit the criteria to receive one. He pushed four separate times through different doctors and his local emergency room to get tested. He finally received a test on his last visit, which took seven hours as he was given several other tests first to eliminate other possible illnesses. The COVID-19 test, administered with a throat swab, took less than a minute to complete, and once the results came back positive, he was placed on quarantine for two weeks. He had visited a local school and was initially asked not to reveal his diagnosis to the school system, but he decided that was irresponsible and notified authorities, who shut down facilities and conducted a cleaning.

The coronavirus can cause death and appears to reduce long-term lung capacity in some of its survivors, though most people eventually recover.

"At its worst, I would call it a mild flu," says the manager, describing his personal experience. "It doesn't have to be a dire sentence."

But he was also amused by tales of behavior at an industry party before Scotty McCreery's March 11 concert at Nashville's Ryman Auditorium. Some attendees were in sync with fist bumps and elbow bumps as a replacement for the traditional handshake, while others seemed insulted when people refused to shake their hand. Still others hugged old friends without asking first if it was OK.

"I can empathize with people that think we're overreacting," says the manager. "On the other hand, I'll think about my peers and, you know, I don't want people inadvertently infected."

It is, he believes, important for the Nashville music industry to know that COVID-19 is in the community. Though no additional infections have been reported publicly since he appeared at the tornado telethon, it is easy to conceive of his fellow telethon attendees Kid Rock, Cassadee Pope, and Lady Antebellum's Charles Kelley and Dave Haywood contracting the virus that night and in turn spreading it to their families as well as cowriters, musicians, radio programmers and fans across the country. An ounce of prevention, the manager believes, is worth a ton of cure.

"Whether we're reacting appropriately or overreacting, we won't know for some time," he says. "People, I think, are just trying to do the best they can."

This article first appeared in the weekly Billboard Country Update newsletter. Click here to subscribe for free.

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