CULLMAN, Ala. — Summer 2020: The season to pull up, park your car and … watch a concert?
Sounds about right.
Country music star Alan Jackson caught the “drive-in” concert bug this weekend, performing one of the first large-scale carside shows in North America since the COVID-19 pandemic caused artists, promoters and venue owners to pause virtually all touring in mid-March – a decision that trade publication Pollstar said could cost the music industry $9 billion this year.
The Country Music Hall of Famer played the first of two Alabama “drive-in” shows this weekend, for an estimated 2,000 vehicles in rural Cullman, about 140 miles south of Nashville. He’s the latest in a growing list of Nashville entertainers, primarily in Christian music and country, to turn to nostalgic drive-in cinemas or open field stages for a music-meets-tailgate experience.
And, as show-goers offered scattered applause from truckbeds and car windows, Jackson said he appreciated returning to the stage.
“I love cars,” Jackson said, greeting a sea of headlights. “This is perfect for me. The main thing we’re just glad to get out of the house and have a good time with y’all down here.”
Inside the drive-in
Jackson played what’s believed to be the largest of announced “drive-in” tours, hauling a multi-screen and elevated stage production to York Farms in Cullman, home to annual country festival Rock the South.
In hopes of maintaining social distance, lemonade carts delivered drinks and fans could order food for carside delivery via text message. Show-goers caught Jackson’s 75-minute set from lawn chairs or on top of cars, with lines sometimes forming at portable restrooms and merchandise stands.
Adding to the crossover tailgate experience, fans could bring in coolers and snacks. They heard Jackson singing from his pantheon of hits — “Gone Country,” “I’d Love You All Over Again” and “It’s Five O’ Clock Somewhere” among them — via PA speakers or in the car on FM airwaves.
Jackson, in a red button-down and his signature white hat, performed with his full band Friday night for the first time since February, when 2020 arena wrapped its first leg days before the pandemic took full-force in the U.S.
The production crew wanted to make the experience “as real as possible,” said Jackson tour manager Nathan Baugh. Onlookers danced and waved American flags as Jackson sang “Livin’ On Love” and the familiar country harmonies in “Seven Bridges Road.”
“It’s … as close to a festival experience as you can (get),” Baugh said. “Alan only does one show and that’s his show with his full band and his video walls and his content.”
Tickets started at $100 for two-person general admission car and $40 for each additional person. A local nurse, Brenda Bennett, said it would need to be “Jackson or Eric Church or someone like that” to sway her into catching a drive-in concert during the ongoing pandemic.
“I’m wearin’ my mask, washin’ my hands,” Bennett of Cullman, said. “Should be good.”
Others, such as Phyllis Maynard, of Lebanon, Tennessee, traveled with family for a one-night escape.
“It’s a good break from all the stuff we’ve been seeing on the TV,” she said.
Future car concerts?
Jackson broke the ice (or, in this case, marquee? Picture screen?) on country stars launching “drive-in” tours, but listeners may not see an avalanche of chart-topping stars who launch coast-to-coast performances from rural fields or next to outdoor silver screens.
Typically, the states and counties hosting large-scale carside concerts — with designated staging and often an FM transmission — began loosening COVID-19 shutdown restrictions in recent weeks. This includes Tennessee, where Christian singer Michael W. Smith played a parking lot gig in Franklin last month and country artist Keith Urban threw a secret show for Vanderbilt medial workers at Stardust Drive-In in Watertown, about 40 miles east of Nashville.
For example, organizers for Jackson’s concert and “Concert In Your Car,” a similar series launched in the parking lot of Globe Life Park in Arlington, Texas, needed respective state and local approval before launching.
And promoters also contend with continued uncertainly regarding when proper live music may be safe again.
“I don’t think anybody thinks this is a model that replaces the arena or… festival experience,” Baugh said.
But, much like the pandemic that caused promoter to turn summer concerts curbside, this trend may not fade quietly. Awakening Events, a Franklin-based Christian music promotion company, launched tours this summer with TobyMac, Newsboys United and Steven Curtis Chapman, each respectively playing rural drive-in cinemas throughout the South.
Jackson hasn’t ruled out expanding his drive-in show, either, Baugh said.
“It is a laborious process, working through state governments,” he said, “but Alan would like to do more of them.”
And — as the pandemic continues to indefinitely threaten shoulder-to-shoulder event — it may be one of the few ways that fans wanting live music can find it this summer.
As Jackson said Friday night: “This is a unique situation. Thank you.”
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