In March 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic brought the world to a halt, stopping new artists in their tracks just as they were embarking on the crucial stepping stones so vital to building a career. Prime opening slots on tours, radio station visits and media interviews abruptly ended in a way that was devastating for acts just beginning to build connections with fans.
But some newcomers found silver linings in the pandemic, turning to creative solutions to keep fans engaged and move their careers forward. Artists including Black River Entertainment’s Ray Fulcher, Big Loud Records’ MacKenzie Porter and BBR Music Group’s Elvie Shane made some of their biggest career strides during lockdown, thanks to out-of-the-box thinking, embracing new platforms, preparation — and, yes, a little bit of luck. Here are their stories:
Canada native Porter was already riding high on three consecutive No. 1 hits at Canadian country radio and was poised to make her first major push to country radio in the United States when the pandemic forced artists off the road. At the time, she was touring with Brad Paisley while also visiting radio stations.
“We had worked for years, writing and developing, trying to set up that moment,” Porter tells Billboard. “Then it was just swiped from underneath us, but that’s what everybody went through. I remember my anxiety being so high, because of everything going on in the world — but then also thinking, ‘What’s going to happen to my career?’ It felt like it was my time.”
Porter did what many artists did — spend hours at home on her computer for numerous livestream shows and virtual radio station visits. She also amped up her content on social media, letting fans in on her day-to-day activities, from photo shoots to studio sessions.
“It is something you have to think about every day — and I sometimes struggle between being present in the moment and then also capturing that moment to post — but it’s part of the job now. Any time you want to discover an artist, you go to their TikTok or Instagram, to get a fast snippet of who they are. Friends that I’ve met on social media are coming to my shows now.”
In 2020, she also released the seven-track project, Drinkin’ Songs: The Collection (which earned a Juno nomination this year), and earned several Canadian Country Music Award nominations, including nods for female artist of the year and songwriter of the year.
Then, she got word that Dustin Lynch was looking for a female vocalist to be featured on his song “Thinking ‘Bout You.” The original recording included on Lynch’s 2020 album Tullahoma featured a guest vocal from Lauren Alaina; however, due to timing issues with Alaina, Lynch opted to re-record the song in order to send it to country radio.
“He did a blind audition process and I was one of the people asked to audition for it,” Porter recalls. “Me and my producer put a vocal down and sent it in.” A few days later, Lynch left Porter a voicemail, officially inviting her to be part of the song.
“I still have that voicemail saved, and this whole ride has been truly a dream,” Porter says. “It was the perfect thing to get my name out there without physically going anywhere, because no one could tour. It was the perfect storm.”
Now, “Thinking ‘Bout You” is Porter’s first top 5 hit on Billboard’s Country Airplay chart. She recently made her debut on the Grand Ole Opry, as well as her first appearance on Jimmy Kimmel Live!, performing “Thinking ‘Bout You” alongside Lynch.
In September, with a song on the radio that fans could recognize, Porter finally made her full-fledged return to performing, opening concerts on Jordan Davis’s Buy Dirt tour. Next year, with a hit single under her belt and a new single, “Pickup,” to promote, Porter will join “Fancy Like” hitmaker Walker Hayes on tour.
“Let me tell you, I’m so glad we get to play shows again, because it’s not that fun to play to your phone or a screen,” Porter says. “I’m so happy that we’re playing in front of real people again.”
Like Porter, Fulcher spent his pandemic days in 2020 working on new music. Fulcher had primarily been known as a songwriter, co-writing four No. 1 Billboard Country Airplay hits for Luke Combs, including the five-week No. 1 “Even Though I’m Leaving” and four-week chart-topper “Lovin’ On You.”
With sights set on solidifying Fulcher’s image as both a writer and an artist, Fulcher and his team set two goals after coming off the road with Matt Stell in March 2020: write more songs and record a new album of music to follow his 2019 release Somebody Like Me.
“We just tried to use  as much to our advantage as possible, and there’s a lot to keep building on,” Fulcher tells Billboard. “I dove back into writing, Monday through Friday. On the artist side, we already had a lot of songs picked out to record and had planned to record them throughout the year, but by July we had 12 songs done so we were ahead of the game.”
In February, Fulcher announced his label deal with Black River Entertainment, and says having so much new music ready to go helped cinch the deal. Heading into 2021, now with a label team behind him, Fulcher returned to doing an in-person radio tour.
“Visiting the stations, most of the time I was the first or second artist back to doing a radio tour, and it was kind of touch and go,” he explains. “Sometimes we couldn’t go in the building, so I played in parking lots, on park benches. If we had an SUV rental car, I’d pop open the hatch, sit on the back and play. We had to be creative, but I was just happy to be able to go and play in person.”
Building up to his return to the road, Fulcher and his team have kept adding accolades. On June 25, he made his Grand Ole Opry debut—the same day he released a three new songs. In August, he officially released his debut single, “Girl In It,” to country radio, and followed with The Larkin Hill Mixes EP in September. Earlier this year, he joined Ashley McBryde’s This Town Talks Tour, before hopping on Combs’s What You See Is What You Get Arena tour (next year, he will join open shows for Chris Janson).
“To play this big of a tour is pretty awesome,” Fulcher says. “I’ve played some festivals and other outdoor shows with him that might have been this big, but with it being and indoor arena, the crowds just feel different. I mean, it’s just the dream, right? That’s what you dream about.”
In order to accommodate more people, those arena shows are held in the round. “He’d never done those, either, so it felt like we’re just learning together,” Fulcher says. “It’s a totally different thing to have people all around you — it feels like four separate crowds. The first few times out there it felt like, ‘How do I make sure everybody feels connected?’ It was fun and challenging to figure out the best way to do that. We had to figure it out together.”
Over the past year, Shane has been riding high with his ode to step-parenting, “My Boy,” a song he co-wrote in 2016. In August 2020, the song went viral thanks to TikTok just before his label released it to country radio that September. Thirteen months later, the song became Shane’s first No. 1 on Billboard Country Airplay and was certified gold by the Recording Industry Association of America.
Shane says the shutdown allowed his team to create video content to promote the track just before it landed at country radio. The lyric video for “My Boy” featured sketch-style drawings highlighting the song’s lyrics, while another video featured Shane playing baseball with his stepson. He also released a clip featuring a new version of the song, “My Girl,” geared toward those with stepdaughters.
“I think it was like four days before we officially went to radio that we saw the first of those videos start to go viral on TikTok,” Shane says.
Like most artists, Shane did numerous virtual radio visits in the lead-up to sending “My Boy” to country radio — but with the help of BBR Music Group, those visits were taken to a new level in terms of quality.
“We had [fellow BBR Music Group artist Jason] Aldean’s lighting guy and video guy come in and do this eight-camera setup in the studio. Me and my band, the Broken Arrows, did virtual shows. For six weeks, we did five shows a day, starting at 9:00 in the morning. Each show, we’d play four songs with a bit of banter in between it. I really think we were the first ones to approach a virtual radio tour and make it like a concert experience. Then after we did the show, I had a Zoom call where my iPad was set up so I could meet these people virtually, since we couldn’t travel. It was great to put our best foot forward and do it in a way that hadn’t been done before.”
Like Fulcher, Shane amplified his April 23 Grand Ole Opry debut by releasing his EP County Roads the same day. Then, just after “My Boy” reached the Country Airplay pinnacle, Shane followed with his full-length debut project Backslider.
This year, when he began opening shows for Aldean at Bonnaroo Farms in Manchester, Tenn., as well as shows on Miranda Lambert’s Wildcard tour and Brooks & Dunn’s Reboot tour, he had a song that was already resonating with fans. “That’s the ultimate payoff– to hear people sing that song back to you at shows,” Shane says.
Though Shane says he and his team have yet to decide on a radio single to follow “My Boy,” he will embark on his first headlining club tour in February 2022.
“Clubs are so important to me, they help you build a strong foundation,” he offers. “If you play a 1,000-cap room and if you’re lucky to have 1,000 people show up, when you come back there next year, maybe you can play a 5,000-cap room and hopefully they’re all going to bring a few of their friends and fill the place up. It’s about the long game for me.”