Granger Smith Now Has the Blueprint for a Successful Socially Distant Concert
Not every artist will be up for replicating the pandemic concert model Granger Smith successfully unrolled on Saturday (July 4) in Texas. The "That's Why I Love Dirt Roads" singer took extraordinary steps to ensure social distancing — fans from the stage, fans from each other — and he feels confident in the blueprint he's created. He also understands how a single misstep could cripple his operation.
Smith's Fourth of July show was at Dell Diamond, home of the minor league Round Rock Express baseball team in Round Rock, Texas, near Austin. The concert date came just a week after two high-profile social distancing show failures that drew tremendous scrutiny of fellow country artists Chase Rice and Chris Janson. But that didn't alter Smith or the venue's plans.
“What it did do," Smith tells Taste of Country, "was, there were a lot of emails that started circulating that said, ‘You sure you wanna do this?'"
He did. He does.
Smith wanted to play, because he and his band have grown sick of livestreaming concerts for an audience they can't see. The Texas native understands that if you want to work this year, you'll have to do so under special conditions. That's the future of concerts at least for the rest of 2020, and if the alternative is not working at all, Smith knows what he has to do.
So, along with the city, the venue and the Round Rock Express, the country star and his team began to draw up a plan that explored every imaginable scenario, every risk. Seating, distance from the stage (about 30 feet), bathroom lines and how fans would leave the venue after the fireworks ended (done by section) were all considered, and even then it was up to fans to behave.
"The night before, and that morning, we kept saying, 'If anything goes wrong, are we willing to not play?'" Smith explains, "And the consensus was: 'Yes.'"
"That’s including if, five minutes before the show, say the crowd rushes the stage unexpectedly," he says. "I'm not going out there. We had to make those kind of decisions. The band would ask, 'What happens if they rush the stage four songs in?' I said, ‘Okay, I’m going to walk off and then there’s going to be a PA announcement that says the show will not continue until this gets back in order.'"
Smith also needed total buy-in from his band and crew. It was 100 degrees outside in central Texas on Saturday, but any crew members or personnel associated with the show were required to keep masks on at all times.
"As soon as you hit the stage you can take your mask off," the star says he told his band, and "As soon as you walk off the stage, masks go back on."
And this was the easy one. Round Rock is essentially a hometown show for Smith, who recently bought a piece of land nearby (where his family is temporarily living in an RV), meaning his crew members could drive separately to the venue and drive home in their personal vehicles afterward. Moving forward, they'll need to share a bus. Smith has a plan for that, too.
"Since we have to travel, we're going to go get tested, and once we get those test results back, for everyone that tests negative, you'll quarantine until you get to the bus, and then we’ll travel to the show. I already bought the thermometer," he says of his plans to continue touring.
"After we play these shows — and it will be a strict, no talking to fans, no socializing at all outside of the band and crew who have theoretically now tested negative — then at the end of the three- or four-day run, before we go home, we'll then get tested again and then drive home, get the results and wait for everyone to get negative before we then go back into our houses to see our families."
It's a lot of work for shows that can't fill to capacity as COVID-19 deaths soar across the United States. Smith says 3,500 tickets were sold for Saturday's show, and the venue typically holds 12,000 people.
Necessary spacing between patrons did mute his crowd a little bit — typically, when his alter ego Earl Dibbles Jr. comes to the stage at the end of a show, fans are spilling their beers, clamoring to get closer. YeeYee Nation was more subdued on this night, understandably, but Smith has declared it a big win. Now, he has a blueprint he can take to venues and say, "Hey, would you like to do this?"
Smith has four shows scheduled in four days coming up, starting on July 23 in Lincoln, Neb., and he plans to do his best to fulfill his obligations. Perhaps he'll even add more concerts to fill out the fall? It's high-risk, low reward, but his goal — beyond just keeping his bandmates' families fed — is proving that music can still help save lives.
Will others follow?
Smith says he's heard from a few artist friends who just don't want to deal with the hurdles required, and others who think the restrictions and social distancing guidelines are just propaganda — that, rather, they should just be allowed to play as normal. Then, there are artists who recognize an opportunity for a win-win. For those artists, Smith has a plan they can borrow.
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