Honky Tonkin’ in the Time of COVID

Nikki Grossman and Joe Hart are The Sapsuckers, purveyors of original, finely-honed, country music. The Sapsuckers live near Soldiers Grove and are fixtures of the midwest music scene. We spoke to them recently about how they’re staying afloat during the pandemic, defining “authentic” country music, the new tunes they’re cooking up for future release, and much more.

The Covid crisis has reached all the way up into the hills and valleys of the Driftless Region you guys call home. How are you holding up?

We’re not gonna lie, COVID-19 has severely impacted our livelihood as musicians. For various personal reasons, the past few years have been a struggle as far as fulfilling our band-related ambitions. When we decided to buy our land, the idea was to lower our overhead significantly, so it would be easier to make a living off our music.

That was a solid plan until life threw us some unexpected, bitter financial lemons less than a year into homesteading. We were forced to re-commit to part-time day jobs. We spent the following two years running around like crazy people – parenting four children, AND maintaining a semi-off-grid homestead, AND working day jobs, and living below the poverty level the whole time – yet somehow in the cracks, we made most of our living off of music.

Eventually we had a come-to-Jesus moment, where we were like: “Ok. We know we can actually make more money playing music than we can doing anything else if we put our all into it. So let’s make a plan to transition to doing it full time, damn the consequences.” That was last summer. Since then we have executed a multi-phase plan, which involved Joe quitting his day job first in order to book and promote the Sapsuckers full-time; then moving part-time to St. Louis, Missouri, to work with a band; Then, once we had a full schedule of dates booked to support us, Nikki would quit her day job. We executed all the phases of that plan over many months. Nikki happened to quit her day job one week before COVID-19 forced everyone to go into quarantine.

Less than two weeks into the COVID crisis, we did our first livestream. That weekend, we originally had three gigs booked that would have made us $1,000 to $2,000 total. Our livestream, by some crazy fluke, almost made up that number for us. Since then we have done them twice a week, and now we are down to just once a week on Wednesday evenings. Livestreams have flooded Facebook, and mostly only our beloved die-hard fans tune into ours now, so we don’t make much money on them anymore.

We don’t anticipate being able to go back on the road anytime within the next year. If we are denied unemployment or don’t get it by the Fall, we’ll have to start doing some other work – which is not so bad, except it takes time and energy away from our music. We are OK with being in limbo, but we don’t want to feel like we’re losing ground or backtracking or giving up. Friends of ours already are – we know people who went out and got day jobs right away, people who are seriously considering throwing in the towel for good. Talented, bigger-name, full-time people even. It’s scary, and sad, and disheartening beyond description. But we keep working every day, even if we don’t get paid.

Obviously the Summer is an important time for touring musicians, but so many public festivals and events have been cancelled. Has that hit you hard? What are you doing to adapt?

Before COVID, we had our entire summer and fall booked with festivals and other gigs – the revenue from which would have paid our bills and supported us. 100% of them have now been cancelled. We have been waiting for unemployment to come through, and it hasn’t yet. When COVID first happened, we had the idea to have some kind of socially distanced concert series here on our land.

We started planning the concert series – now dubbed “Safe & Sound“. We got seven prominent Midwestern musical acts to agree to come and play. It was kind of like in Wayne’s World, where they book the bands, and they come.

We’re not sure what to expect for the rest of the series, since nothing is “normal” right now. Everyone is on standby, watching the COVID numbers, which have actually been spiking lately. Though we are confident that, given our level of organization with our safety measures, it is unlikely that COVID will be spread at our concerts. We hope we can continue to make this concert series worth the effort and risk for ourselves and the other bands involved. It’s been hard work to get ready, but rewarding.

Full info about the series can be found on our website (this Sunday’s show features Charlie Parr, Liz Draper, and Ben Weaver).

Are you taking this opportunity to work on new material? Or recordings?

Right at the beginning of COVID-19, we had a big batch of new songs – six or eight – come down the pipeline. Many of them were songs we’d been trying to finish for a long time, but at least 1/3 of them were brand new. We’ve played all of them on our live streams since then, but it’s been tough to get them worked up, because we usually do most of our “rehearsing” when we play live.

We have been working on recording a single remotely with musicians in Minneapolis, Vermont, Seattle and St. Louis, as well as an engineer in St. Louis at Native Sound studio. Obviously we would have tried to do this all in person if it weren’t for the virus. It’s taking forever, but it’s going smoothly so far.

We don’t have a release date set for the single yet, but it will probably be within a month of now. Additionally, we are in the initial planning stages for our new full-length album, which we hope to make a trip to St. Louis to do some in-person studio tracking for sometime this fall.

You guys obviously take influence from a vast pool of music. What has been speaking to you lately?

Well, as anyone who has known about the Sapsuckers since we began can tell you, we’ve changed our style up quite a bit. We started out as, essentially, a 1930s cover band who dressed the part, and now we’ve transitioned to a more modern, versatile sound with all original music, and the fashion to match. We realize it can be confusing, frustrating, and off-putting to fans when a band makes a radical metamorphosis like that. But we hope that people can still hear the essence of what was important to us when we started – the polished, complex close-harmony style we learned from 1930s blood-harmony duos like The Blue Sky Boys; catchy, unique songs with a sense of humor; and fiddle and guitar styles that are rooted in Old Time music sensibilities.

On top of that, we KNOW we have evolved into better musicians, performers, and songwriters since our old-timey days, and we hope that people notice and care about that more than they care about our change. The way the transition happened was, a few years ago, we both started writing way more songs and listening to way more modern music. We stopped wanting to write songs that sounded like they were written 80 years ago and simplified our personal standards to “good songs that will get stuck in peoples’ heads.”

When I say we started listening to “more modern music,” I mean specifically Top 40 modern country radio, since it’s the only thing to listen to on the radio around here. Joe was working at a restaurant where that’s all they played, and I was doing a lot of driving back and forth to my farm jobs and cranking the radio. And for both of us, times like those were when our creative songwriting brains would switch on…and there just so happened to be Morgan Wallen, or Jon Pardi, or Kacey Musgraves playing in the background. We noticed, through a songwriter’s lens, how really clever and well-written a lot of those Top 40 country songs are. We are aware that most people who like our music do NOT like Top 40 country, and it’s hard for them to understand why we dig it so much.

But I will note…people who hear modern country music and say, “that’s not country music” are straight up wrong. Sure, some of it is better or worse, but it IS country music, whether they like it or not. Country music is a living continuum, and there’s always been “bad” country music, and people laying claim to “pure” or “authentic” country music. This is not a new idea, just because rap and modern pop music are current influences on country. Also, themes in the subject matter of country songs that make liberal folks like us squirm – Jesus, the military, sexism, racism, tone-deafness to the current standards of political correctness – none of those things are at all new in country music, either.

The thing is, we can hear so clearly the direct lines of influence from country music’s past in there, and we also hear the new innovations that are working. It’s fascinating. Plus, it’s fun to like something that lots of other people arbitrarily hate. Although ultimately we are very live-and-let-live people, and other folks’ opinions are mostly pretty understandable to me…I don’t mind them, they’re mostly entitled to them, and I’m pretty used to hearing them. So if they want to hate modern country, that’s ok with me. As long as they like our band, haha.

Interview by Evan Dvorsak. Email questions or story ideas to lacrosseindependent@gmail.com.

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