Northwoods Musicians And The Pandemic

Oct 15, 2020

The Northwoods is known for an active music scene. Local singer/songwriters, however, depend on live performances to earn a living. Jim Skibo visited with two musicians and discussed how the pandemic has changed their lives and music.

All of us have been affected by the pandemic in some way, but for local singers and songwriters like Phyl Wickham of Minocqua and David Walters of Rhinelander, their lives and music have changed in both negative and positive ways. Because their livelihood is dependent on compensation from four to five live performances each week mostly in bars and festivals, the stay-at-home orders earlier in the year took away their source of income. Here is Wickham.

“Immediately after the shutdown my entire summer and spring schedule was completely canceled. It was pretty grim.”

Walters’ live performances suffered a similar fate. Since the gradual opening of some establishments and the availability of outdoor venues, they are both back working again but not without concern.

“Right now, I don’t think any musician feels totally comfortable. We try to be cautious ourselves and the venues try to be cautious. But even with that there is a calculated risk we are all aware of.”

Wickham has similar concerns.

“After things opened up a lot of us started going back to work and getting whatever kind of gigs we could get. Mostly outside. There are very few that I have done indoors. I have done a few indoors, but I am still on the fence on whether I should even be doing that. But at the same time, I’ve got to work too. I’ve got bills to pay and I am trying to get by as best I can.”

Both Walters and Wickham, who play a combination of folk, bluegrass and country, have been piecing together enough work to get by and trying to do the performing safely, they each talk about a positive result of the pandemic—an increase in their creativity. With more time on their hands they have been doing more practicing, writing, and recording. Wickham, was able to record a new song, “Dusty Eyed and Broken Hearted.” https://www.facebook.com/Phyl-and-Friends-303870749666084

Not only was Wickham able to write and record this song, which will be part of an album scheduled to come out early next year, he was able to experiment with his guitar playing and use his writing as a form of therapy in our troubled times.

“Some of the stuff I am writing may or may not see the light of day. I’m writing just to get these thoughts down on paper. It is a way to deal with some of the feelings and thoughts I am having every day with the uncertain times we are living it.”

Many of Wickham’s songs follow a similar theme as “Dusty Eyed and Broken Hearted.”

“Heartbreak is something that everyone will go through at some point in their life. I like to write about topics that are relatable to everyone.”

Walters and his band have also found of burst of creativity including this new song, which will be included in their first album (https://www.oldpineroadband.com/?fbclid=IwAR0d8wzghLUbMnryqSwzhRIS8_dsdDX1Ultrh6zujwRZ0SrJNBeYAzON2gU).

With their forced spare time, they have been listening to different forms of music and have done some experimentation, which is included in the current song. Walters describes what motivated the lyrics.

“Any time there is a life change there are feelings of doubt and insecurity. It ties into the quarantine. Those feelings are super amplified. Being unsure really makes you motivated to excel sometimes. Or be something else. Reinvent yourself. That is what that song is about. Going through life and trying to prove yourself.”

Like Wickham’s song, these lyrics deal with some heavy topics, but Walters experimented with giving the accompanying music a more upbeat feel.

“When you are writing a happy guitar lick your mind tends to go towards happier lyrics. And when you are writing something that has a darker feel to it your mind tends to go that way, but it is really cool when you can take that direction and totally change it. When you can take something with some more upbeat chord progressions and touch on some darker subject material that can be pretty interesting.”

And this discovery, along with Wickham’s burst of writing, would not have been possible without their increase in free time during the pandemic.

Image courtesy of David Walters