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Concerts, COVID and cold ones: How vaccine politics is playing out at venues

Live music is learning how to deal with vaccine politics.
Credit: William Joy

FORT WORTH, Texas — We’ve experienced it in our workplace. Our kids have experienced it in school. We’ve even had to deal with it in church. Now, vaccine politics have entered the world of live music. And it’s just as much a political grenade there as it is anywhere else. 

Just ask the general manager of one of the country’s most famous honky tonks.

“The last thing I'm going to do is dig my heels in and say 'We're not doing this because of this.' I mean, that's not my business. I'm here to sell beer and produce good music. And if we do that and people will come to us,” Marty Travis said on Y’all-itics.

Fort Worth’s Billy Bob’s celebrated its 40th anniversary in April. And just two weeks ago, the legendary watering hole celebrated being open for one year since temporarily shutting down during the early days of the pandemic.

Travis says despite one recent notable exception, Billy Bob’s has a clear policy on vaccination proof (it’s not usually required) and masks.

“At most of our shows, now that the mask policy is optional, there's not very many people with masks walking around. There's one or two percent of people in the club. I approached the night of Jason Isbell by choice,” Travis said.

That Jason Isbell show was the notable exception. And did it ever set off a firestorm. The country music artist insists that anybody who attends his shows must show proof of vaccination or a negative COVID test within the last 72 hours. 

After the original venue balked at those rules, Isbell’s team turned to Billy Bob’s. And after deciding to take on the show, Travis says he got an earful from those opposed to the requirements, some of whom were pretty rude.

“And so, when we opened up that night for Isbell, I was expecting a little bit of a protest crowd or a little bit more live presence of people being upset. And there wasn’t. The people that were here wanted to see the show. We virtually had no problems for the people that wanted to be here,” he explained.

Travis says they only turned away two people that night. And they did something else that could become a model for other venues. They offered rapid tests on property for anyone wanting to see the Isbell show. And unlike other venues that charge up to $30 for the test, Billy Bob’s offered it for free. And that wasn’t cheap.

“It was kind of a marketing piece to let people know that we're trying to give you every opportunity to come and see the show,” Travis explained. “It's an option if you want to come do it. We're not going to turn you away because you didn't have time to go get it or you didn't have time to do this or that.”

Despite considering the Isbell show a success, the politics surrounding vaccinations and masks won’t go away anytime soon. So Travis will have to continue navigating that minefield. 

He says he has contracts for artists all the way into next year. And there are currently zero asking for special accommodations like Isbell.

“But if somebody, pick a name, in November, called me and said, 'Hey, we’re going to change, we got to have vaccination policies in place,' well now we’re renegotiating the contract. Now, I have to decide can I do it legally by TABC, or government, or mayor, whoever tells me I can’t. And do I want the backlash of what I just did with Jason Isbell?”

Other live music venues and artists have recently announced they, too, will require proof of vaccination or a negative test. This includes Austin City Limits, the legendary music festival that kicks off October 1. 

And country icon Garth Brooks recently canceled some tour dates altogether because of fears surrounding the Delta variant and the country’s latest COVID-19 surge. Travis says moving forward, people will have to make a choice.

“If you don’t want to get wet, don’t go to White Water,” he said. “If you don’t want to follow these rules, if you don’t want to follow these things that have been laid down by the venue, the artist, the state, the government, whatever it is, then stay home and watch it on YouTube.”

Not only did Travis hear from a few angry guests about the Isbell decision, he also heard from state regulators. He says this was part of the battle as well, an issue facing many businesses across Texas. He believes the problem will keep repeating itself if everyone doesn’t get on the same page. 

There’s plenty of other little gems Travis shares about Billy Bob’s. Listen to the latest episode of Y’all-itics to see what he has to say.