COVID-19 has crippled no other industry more than the one that depends on sweating masses of people gyrating together in close quarters: the live entertainment business. Of the concert trough's erstwhile dependents, musicians can lay strong claim to the superlative of "hurting the most" right now. To help take stock of the crisis, Where Y'at sat down with Fred LeBlanc, New Orleans native and lead singer/drummer of Cowboy Mouth.
Cowboy Mouth's story epitomizes the simultaneous anxiety and resilience of artists at large. Musicians, whether trying to make it big or merely maintain, find themselves trapped in a stubborn contradiction that shows no indication of giving way. Cowboy Mouth's relatively secure market perch as an established band, while something of a safety blanket, does not make them invulnerable to coronavirus privations.
"We're very fortunate to have the internet right now," LeBlanc says in as succinct a summary of the pandemic's upshot as you're liable to find. Even as COVID-19 has rendered temporarily obsolete the kind of old-school, rock-and-roll show that's been Cowboy Mouth's bread and butter, the internet provides musicians with a space to keep being creative.
"I'll do whole shows every week or two weeks. Playing guitar and singing. Talking to fans via the Facebook page," explains LeBlanc. As anyone who's been to a live Cowboy Mouth show—an event that one person described as akin to "Southern gospel revival without the religion"—knows that the band puts a premium on back-and-forth with the fans. For LeBlanc, simply going quiet and twiddling his thumbs while waiting for a resolution to the coronavirus crisis would have been unthinkable. For a band that places an impetus on communication with the fans, the Facebook platform has been the gift that keeps on giving, keeping the Cowboy Mouth community in contact while also acting as a life preserver that's been keeping the guys' heads above water.
"The thing about being a musician," LeBlanc says, "is so many of us live hand-to-mouth." One of the band members had to get a side gig breaking sheetrock just to keep the lights on. If a band like Cowboy Mouth, which has a devoted core following going back 30 years, is struggling, one can only imagine what it's been like for some younger, less-established performers out there. Cowboy Mouth's fame and hard-earned support insulates them to some degree from the worst of this catastrophe, but they're taking a hit like everyone else.
Many people have observed the dramatic way in which the coronavirus outbreak has held a sort of funhouse mirror up to society, embellishing our imperfections. So too with the music. The internet may have appeared like a rescuer to the thousands of artists marooned by mandatory quarantines, but not before the digital age short-circuited record sales in the first place, with streaming services like Spotify. It's a supreme irony of the moment that online streaming has been the thing keeping musicians afloat, considering that the internet is the very thing that made them vulnerable to begin with. If it weren't for digital streaming, then musicians wouldn't have been so reliant on live shows for income, and the virus would have been less devastating.
The Cowboy Mouth guys, though, remain undaunted. If anything, the coronavirus's fallout has caused them to double down on the music. LeBlanc says, "I've got to play a rock show soon, or else I'm gonna crawl out of my skin." The quarantine sees him chomping at the bit to get back out there and perform, even as he's got his ear to the grindstone, keeping plenty busy with the online shows and being useful to the people in his life.
This outlook is, after all, very much in character for a band whose mission statement is unapologetically positive, in a genre that is often stereotypically considered to be crass and self-centered. They're "something that tries to be uplifting," not "part of that rock-and-roll cliché of 'let's just drink and party.'" It's not exactly a message you expect to hear from rockers.
LeBlanc attributes the band's idiosyncrasy to Cowboy Mouth's origins in New Orleans, a city that, as the melting pot of the United States, miraculously manages to elude easy categorization.
It's about "that bass drum, New-Orleans-marching-band feel. People in New Orleans move differently, dance differently, view life differently. We understand the necessity of celebration," he says.
It's possibly this unique, peculiar joie de vivre that gives the city the emotional equipment it needs to persist in the face of adversity. Katrina couldn't wipe New Orleans off the map. Where one act of God failed, COVID-19 won't manage either, in part thanks to the resourceful musicians who live here. "The New Orleans attitude and view of life permeate everyone here. It's a certain way of just sliding into the groove of life," LeBlanc says.