As the coronavirus pandemic enters its final phase in the U.S., Billboard is catching up with individuals we interviewed at the beginning of the crisis to see how they’ve weathered the past year.
This installment is told by Catherine Powell, the Nashville tour photographer for top-tier country acts including Maren Morris, Kacey Musgraves and Dan + Shay. After being sidelined by the pandemic, Powell stayed afloat through a mix of unemployment benefits, industry grants, income earned from selling her photos online and occasional work photographing livestreams. In December 2020, she bought a house (“maybe against my better judgment”) and is booked to go back on the road with Dan + Shay beginning in September.
When COVID started, none of us knew that a year later we’d still be in this. [In] March last year, everyone was kind of like, “Prepare for three months off, and then come summer we’re gonna be back on the road,” or “Come fall we’re gonna be back on the road.” So I formatted [my online print store to sell my photographs] in a way where it was only open for like six weeks or something like that — it got me through those months that I planned on not being on the road and a little past that. And then I was like, “Aww sh–, I should have done this for longer.” But it is what it is.
Unemployment would go up and down in terms of, some weeks we got that bonus and that was great and that could fully keep me afloat, but then when that disappeared, the money here was non-livable, essentially, on unemployment. I work with Maren Morris, and she did a bunch of live streams that helped a bunch. And Dan + Shay, I did a few music video stills and promotional shoots with them. Things with my normal clients popped in here and there. But it’s so weird because I feel like I worked so long to get those top-tier clients, and then those were the ones that were like, “Oh, we’re not going to play the live stream game and do as much content as the mid-level artists,” [who] I feel like were the ones that were kind of hustling to a level that they needed to to survive. The bigger artists weren’t doing as many things as some of the smaller ones were, because they just didn’t need to as much, which I get.
I got the Live Nation crew grant, which I think was April, May-ish. It’s been quite odd to rely on that — just feeling like I’ve been so self sufficient for so long and then not having the option to be.
Me and the Dan + Shay band are — you know, those guys are my brothers. We made a point to see each other fairly frequently to just kind of maintain a little bit of normalcy and hang out safely in small groups of, like, five of us. Getting a chance to foster a romantic relationship without the constraints or the stress of being on the road every weekend has been a plus, but it’s super weird to just be in one place for so long. I don’t think I’ve been in one place this long since I was, like, in middle school.
If all goes according to plan, the Dan + Shay tour that we were supposed to do last year will kick off like mid-September. [Ed. Note: Following this interview, Dan +Shay announced their rescheduled would kick off on Sept. 9.] I shot an event at the Ryman [in March] that was 25% capacity, I think that was still like 600 people, and maybe that’s where it starts is those smaller venues that can accommodate distancing and whatnot. But it’s weird because as an artist, you plan on playing a venue to sell it out, but if you can’t sell to that size for safety precautions, then it doesn’t really make sense financially to go on the road at all.
I did a few live streams at the end of 2020 that had zero audience at all, and that was so weird because they’re only playing for the internet, they’re not even using a PA system in the venue. We did a show with Maren Morris for her fan club in December at the Brooklyn Bowl in Nashville, and there were some songs where I could only hear drums, because everything else was just going into the audio feed.
[When I shot at the Ryman] it was cool to at least have an audience. It was nice to actually hear the songs I was shooting, and it was nice to see people having a good time. The Ryman was not selling alcohol, so people had to keep their mask on because they couldn’t use the “I’m drinking!” excuse. But it was cool. Clearly people have been so cooped up and they were so rowdy. Even though they were only like 25% of the amount of people that could be there, they were all very, very excited to be there, which was really cool and definitely fun to feed off that energy again. Just having to shoot around people again, because the live streams were just way too easy to shoot. There’s no challenge because I don’t have to go around anyone.
I decided, maybe against my better judgment, to buy a house at the end of 2020 because, just seeing all the math behind interest rates and blah blah blah, all the boring stuff, [it] seemed to be something that I should take advantage of. And also being home for a year and paying rent to a sh–ty apartment manager, I was just kind of like, “Well, if this happens again, or if this happens for longer, I can’t be stuck in this tiny little space where I can only express myself to a certain degree.” Because I have neighbors and I have rules about what I can do in that space and whatever. And [I] just kind of felt like I needed something that would give me more comfort when I actually was home, especially for longer stretches of time, again.
I’m looking forward to hopefully being on the road for most of 2022. It’s weird now, but I’m trying to appreciate the time that I do have at home and the time I do have to relax, because I know as soon as touring is greenlit again, I’m probably going to be gone for like three years.
As told to Chris Eggertsen.