The COVID-19 shutdown has darkened business across North Carolina, including live-music venues, with no end in sight. But there’s one regular long-running weekly performance event that is still going, although you can’t go see it in person. You can, however, watch it online every Wednesday evening.
Named after a Piedmont blues classic by the late great Orange County native Elizabeth Cotten, the “Shake Sugaree Americana Residency” features Jonathan Byrd and The Pickup Cowboys. They play at The Kraken, the funky roadhouse at the corner of Highway 54 and Dodson’s Crossroads west of Chapel Hill. And their stream features professional-grade audio and video, in part because Byrd got a head start.
Byrd has had a regular Wednesday-night gig at The Kraken for years, often with special guests. In October 2018, his guest was Arrogance guitarist Rod Abernethy, and the North Carolina Department of Cultural Resources came out and filmed the show.
A lightbulb went off, and Byrd decided he should take his shows online. It was a process that involved some trial and error.
“I knew livestreaming was a thing and it seemed like it would be easy to, but of course it was not,” Byrd says. “At first we’d do things like have the camera upside down. But we figured it out.”
Within a few months, Byrd and company had everything figured out to the point that “Shake Sugaree” is more like what you’d see at an “Austin City Limits” show than most music-performance livestreams. And when the virus shutdown kicked in, Byrd talked to the Orange County Sheriffs about whether or not he could keep doing the show.
Word from the authorities was that he could as long as there were no more than 10 people in the room. The show involves a small crew beyond the trio of musicians – audio and video production people, two moving cameras and two still cameras.
“We bring in sanitizer, everybody keeps six feet away from each other and the camera people who get closer wear masks,” Byrd says. “We practice precautions where we can. I would do it in my garage by myself if I had to. We’re lucky to be able to get together and do it how we’ve always done it.”
Viewers can make requests, and there is of course the obligatory online tip jar. The livestream is a major part of a career reinvention where Byrd has taken most of his musical operation online. He also offers weekend-long group songwriting workshops via Zoom meetings, teaching up to eight people at a time.
“We’re just taking it week by week,” Byrd says. “Right now, we’re doing great. Making money on the live stream, doing little video projects, teaching songwriting on the weekends. I’m doing better right now than anybody I know. I’m lucky I did all this stuff and had it in place.”
Tune in for the Kraken livestream at jonathanbyrd.com/livestream, 7-10 p.m. Wednesdays.