By Jesse Dunn
What a time to be alive! Indeed, it’s been a hard row to hoe for all of us during the pandemic. In some ways it seems like a psychedelic whirlwind, a strange existential time warp to the point that one questions if it really happened. Did we really virtually lose 2-plus years? We can all say with confidence that the answer is a definitive yes. For musicians it was a time of extreme anxiety: questioning how we were going to survive financially, questioning this life path altogether. We had invested our entire beings into our music careers, especially touring and playing live music for a living, and it was tough to reckon with jumping ship and changing course so rapidly.
My wife, Jenni, and I founded and play in a nationally touring mountain Americana/rock band called Dead Winter Carpenters based here in North Tahoe. and we also play as a duo throughout the region. On March 13, 2020, our band released the first single from our new EP, Sinners ‘n’ Freaks. Within days of that release, Covid took over the world, and social gatherings were on hold for the foreseeable future.
Our busy spring and summer tour schedule behind that release came to a screeching halt. We were forced to take solace in being grounded in our home and surroundings and enjoy and be grateful for what we have. Our daughter kept us going and energized on a daily basis, and seeing her boundless curiosity and zest for life really drove us to keep on pushing. As most parents can relate, having your kids at home during the pandemic stunted most other productivity for the parents. Fortunately for us, we live in such a beautiful natural area that we were able to get outside in nature and essentially “isolate” amongst the trees.
As musicians, we found that Covid brought complete uncertainty compounded with fear. Playing music as a means of income came to a standstill for Jenni and me, and given this is our livelihood, it became a matter of survival mode. Jenni, who also teaches violin, guitar, mandolin, piano, and voice, was able to continue teaching most of her private lessons online or outdoors in the warmer months, which she should be commended for as should her students!
We streamed virtual weekly shows on Facebook Live that we dubbed “Jenni & Jesse’s Stayhoma Show.” These virtual shows became a way that we could stay connected with our family, friends, and fans, and many of these folks were extremely generous by donating to our “virtual tip jar.” We will be forever grateful for everyone who tuned in during those trying times and contributed financially and emotionally to our well-being. We would set up in our kitchen in our cabin on the West Shore and play the show while our daughter, Mabel, napped. Sometimes that plan worked well and others, it did not. We would play as much as we could until she woke up, and usually we’d make it an hour or more streaming online.
I also work as a booking agent for other bands (not my own, thanks Chris! 🙂 ) and I’m a talent buyer (fancy word for booker) for various music venues throughout the country. I spent the first several months of the pandemic working harder than I’ve ever worked, canceling and rescheduling shows only to have them postponed again and eventually canceled. This cycle repeated ad nauseum. We’d get so close to having a rescheduled tour for our clients, then a band member would test positive, or the venue would have to close due to short staffing from workers being sick. This pattern has continued all the way up to the present day and we’re still seeing these issues arise on a daily basis.
However, I’m not going to sit here and be all woe is me! I’ve been fortunate to have a great support network and I was able to hustle and adjust to make ends meet. Musicares is a wonderful program that provides grants for working musicians along with other programs of the same nature. Jenni and I were able to qualify for a one-time grant from Musicares, which allowed us to survive a bit longer financially at the beginning of the pandemic. Later in 2020, I took a job painting houses for my friend B.A. and his company Just Some Guy Painting. I was able to work outside and form some strong relationships with that team, and we got after it. Those guys are true masters at what they do. Then came the smoke! Ah, the Smoky Covid times. Nothing finer! We trudged through the late summer smoke of 2020, and I continued painting until just before Thanksgiving of that fall.
Early on in the pandemic, creating new music took a backseat for me, mentally. Personally, I lost all drive and inspiration to put myself out there, and I couldn’t dig down to find the desire to write. The time spanning 2019 and early 2020 had already beaten me down, with the loss of my mom to a trying three-year battle with cancer in October of 2019. We also lost my grandmother in January of 2020 and my uncle in March of 2020, all from the same side of the family. I was feeling pretty discouraged and just downright sad.
The silver lining of that time was that with the Dead Winters Carpenter EP release, we were able to raise upwards of $2,500 to benefit the Ovarian Cancer Research Alliance in my mom’s name. We are extremely proud that we were able to raise some awareness and crucial funds for research purposes during that period through the release of the song “Cornerstone” that I wrote for my mom. She was able to hear the earliest version of the song prior to her passing.
Many folks adapted in different ways throughout the pandemic and the music industry was no different. Outdoor shows were held in various formats, including drive-in themed events, or streaming shows that I mentioned earlier. Jenni and I were able to play a handful of socially distanced duo shows in late 2020, but we didn’t play any full band shows until the following summer.
Our first major show back with Dead Winter Carpenters was at the Truckee Amphitheater in early July of 2021. The desire to experience human connection was as evident as it could ever be during that show. People came out of the woodwork, and we had more than 3,000 of our friends, family, and fans at that show. It was unbelievable to see everyone again! I felt like I was going to burst out of my skin, and being on that stage made me remember what I had been missing. Playing music, both for myself and in a live setting, and sharing that with other folks is an essential part of my being. A tangible lifeblood that keeps me ticking. Without it, I’m just an old dusty lamp standing in the corner, buried in a pile of hats, which may never see the light of day again.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again that there is no place like Tahoe when it comes to support for live music. We’ve endured 12-plus years as a band thanks to the endless love and support that we’ve received from the good folks of Truckee and the Tahoe Basin. There are so many great musicians who call this place home that it’s astounding. We all cheer each other on and are fortunate to be part of such a nurturing, strong community, which includes players, songwriters, engineers, venue owners, promoters, buyers, agents, production, radio DJs, journalists, teachers and many more. The music runs deep here. Due to that radiant support and sense of community, we’ve been able to carve out music careers and remain based in Tahoe.
There have been waves of different variants of Covid since that fateful July night in Truckee, but as time winds on, it feels like we are getting closer to the semblance of live music returning as it was pre-pandemic. There is an air of hope that we will one day get back to that place, and we’ve all certainly been trying, players and fans alike. We were able to play the Amphitheater again this summer, and things are continuing to morph and evolve on the live music front. This year’s show had a similar electric energy to it, and again the local crew showed up in a big way! We had a rockin’ two-set show, and two of Jenni’s longest running students (Elia Schreiber and Declan Mack) played a tweener set and brought the house down. It’s been incredible to witness them becoming fantastic musicians over the years and create some brilliant, authentic original music together.
At last, I’ve started dusting off some ideas that I jotted down over the past couple of years, and I’ve transcribed some random voice notes from my phone. I’ve been feeling good, and I’ve started to frame out some new song ideas; but no promises that I’ll ever finish ‘em :).
I truly cherish being able to do what I do and I know that Jenni and the other members of Dead Winter Carpenters feel the same way. We’re all part of a coexisting musical community, and we’ll continue to do our best to be good stewards. Winter Carpenters feel the same way. We’re all part of a coexisting musical community, and we’ll continue to do our best to be good stewards.