THE NEW NORMAL: How Tulsa’s Mercury Lounge Navigates Reopening and Evolving
John Fullbright performs at Tulsa's Mercury Lounge for an online audience Aug. 1. (Photos by Sean Payne)
EDITOR’S NOTE: “The New Normal” is an occasional series of stories that look into how the coronavirus has affected artists, listeners, and the music business. Find other stories in the series here.
“All I do now is cancel gigs,” John Fullbright jokes. “I finally had to throw the calendar away.”
Before COVID-19 swept around the globe, the Oklahoma-based Americana artist played live shows nearly every week, whether on the road or sitting in on keys with top-notch players around Tulsa. But in the spring, Fullbright went deep into quarantine like the rest of the country and has yet to truly emerge. Even as Oklahoma state guidelines eased, less cautious venues reopened, and pressure mounted from fans and finances, the singer-songwriter did not return to the stage. The caution stems from a sense of responsibility that stretches beyond his own loved ones to the audience and community.
“If I am the reason people come out in public and put themselves at risk, should I be playing at all?” he asks.
But on Aug. 1, Fullbright was ready to make an exception for the Mercury Lounge, Tulsa’s go-to “punk-rock honky-tonk.” For the last couple years, he has performed regularly at the dive, usually alongside friends and collaborators like Jacob Tovar, Beau Roberson, and others. Now it’s nearly the only venue where Fullbright feels comfortable enough to perform.
“Mercury’s different because they’ve created an environment that feels safe,” he says. “I’ll come in here because they’re being logical about it.”
For example, Fullbright points out the new stage door installed during the pandemic: It allows bands to load in and load out without any contact with patrons or staff. “I’m not the pope,” he says, evoking the image of being ferried onstage in his own small plexiglass vehicle like the “popemobile.” “I can’t ask every venue to do that.”
Safety is of the utmost importance for the Mercury Lounge as it navigates live shows in 2020, says general manager/part-owner Bobby Dean Orcutt. “My priorities are protecting staff, musicians, and people who want to support culture and community.”
Therefore, when demand for the Fullbright show exceeded the number of people the Merc could safely fit inside the venue, they shifted from in-person to online. The pay-per-view concert would be the first of its kind in the region, filmed live in the empty venue and then broadcast to ticketholders that same night. Even though the Mercury likely would have made more money off an in-person performance, they chose to not place folks at risk, and got creative in the process.
The Mercury might not be the place you’d expect to lead the local scene in safety precautions. For 15 years, the small club, operated out of a former Sinclair gas station, has become known for hosting high-quality live music seven nights a week, including plenty of rowdy Red Dirt country bands and renowned locals like John Moreland and Paul Benjaman. The unpretentious venue’s rough-and-ready reputation even inspired the song “The Mercury” by Oklahoma’s beloved country six-piece Turnpike Troubadours on their 2015 self-titled album.
The place has grime and attitude, which Orcutt describes as “tongue-in-cheek, educated hillbilly.” The venue’s irreverent slogans include “This Bar Sucks!” and “You can smoke weed on the patio! No narcs, no assholes.” It’s also known for its open door to a diverse range of regulars and newcomers. Orcutt dubs it “Cheers with bands,” where the vibe has long been “cowboy, biker, and punk.”
“But it’s basically a neighborhood bar,” he says, “where at happy hour you’ll find doctors and lawyers sitting next to mechanics and plumbers” of all ages and backgrounds.
But this year, the Mercury has stood out among local venues for taking pandemic safety precautions so seriously. The venue closed from mid-March to late-May, even as state and local guidelines relaxed and other music bars reopened without strict safety measures. It has also crafted and shared its own COVID-19 safety guidelines — which were decided by round-table consensus among staff and have been adapted by the Centers for Disease Control’s (CDC) recommendations as well as Minnesota’s state guidelines (which Orcutt and the team deemed to be among the strictest nationwide).
When Mercury did slowly reopen on Memorial Day weekend, it was at a third of normal capacity (or about 30 audience members in total), with only one bartender working at a time. A strict mask policy was in place, as was a restructured ventilation system that limits recycled air. Amid local reports of more cases shortly after Memorial Day, including in other venues and among musicians, the Merc closed again for a few days to assess and regroup. With even more precautions in place, including Plexiglass at the bar and different hours of operation, it opened again, and so far it’s had no positive test results.
Bands now have separate access to the bar, and stanchions keep listeners apart from players by at least six feet. And since the venue is a converted gas station/garage, there are two garage door-like windows that open, as well an outdoor patio space with direct views of the stage. Since the CDC suggests that events held in outdoor spaces present less risk of viral transmission, the Merc has been encouraging patrons to make use of this popular space and listen to the music from afar.
“It’s about creating pockets where everybody can operate in their lanes,” Orcutt says. “Is that enough? I don’t know. But we can’t afford right now to reopen fully and ‘just see what happens.’”
Independent music venues everywhere are grappling with this contradiction: They can’t afford to open the way they used to and they can’t afford to stay shut down.
In much of the US, indoor concerts of any size are still a no-go. However, Tulsa County, which has reported 19,400 coronavirus cases and 180 related deaths since March, has left many decisions about capacity and precautions up to private businesses. The Mercury has communicated openly with bookers and musicians about its limits for playing live for the foreseeable future.
Right now, that means booking limited-capacity shows and sets by resident musicians, and encouraging patrons to physically distance while enjoying the music. To make use of the stage, the venue is also allowing bands to record daytime sets that can be sold as ticket add-ons, or, as with Fullbright, the taping is the show itself.
“Agents and bands are still betting on an old model,” says Sean Payne, Mercury’s booking manager and house photographer, “but shows are going to keep getting canceled. We’re trying to offer safe options.”
These efforts tell a larger story about the role of a music venue in a smaller city like Tulsa. Losing a gathering space like the Merc would be devastating to the community, which heightens both the need for it to survive and the level of calculated risk it’s willing to take. But the venue’s importance also increases the potential impact of its actions on public health.
“Tulsa is a music destination, and we’ve seen so many folks come out in support of ‘Save Live Music’ initiatives,” says Abby Kurin, executive director of the Tulsa Office of Film, Music, Arts, and Culture. “Venues are critical not only to the cultural element of our city, but the economic, and unfortunately it’s almost taken a pandemic to shine light on the industry.”
Even more specifically, Orcutt emphasizes the geographic importance of the Merc for touring bands and local musicians. Though he’s worked at the venue in some capacity for years, in between stints in business and as a tour manager and record label founder, Orcutt took over Mercury’s booking in May 2019 with a clear vision: to make the Merc the reason bands route through Tulsa. “One-hundred-cap rooms are the stepping stones to culture,” he says. “A band isn’t going to make it to Cain’s Ballroom without playing the 100-cap rooms first; it’s like expecting people to become doctors but you can’t go to college. This is the room of its size on I-44, between Chicago and Dallas, between Nashville and LA. It’s a really important market.”
So far, the Mercury’s reopening results are good: No staff member has gotten sick, so the venue has avoided what’s happened at several other local spots. Yet these changes have positioned Mercury at odds with some of its longtime patrons — staff have received major blowback on social media and in person as the issue of wearing masks has become politicized.
On the afternoon of Fullbright’s concert taping, for example, two bikers rumbled into the Mercury’s parking lot as Fullbright and I talked on the outdoor patio. The burly, black-clad men pushed through the door into the darkness of the bar. Twenty seconds later, they were back on the curb, shaking their heads, roaring off on their motorcycles, as Orcutt himself kindly informed them that if they wanted to stay, they had to wear face masks.
For the Mercury, the challenge of survival means reimagining how a venue functions in the community. Orcutt’s team went into creative overdrive, figuring out how the Mercury can still be a space for performance and gathering, even when it’s impossible to pack a room. One strategy is to expand the venue’s media footprint: sharing vintage recorded performances, reaching out via already active social media networks, and by launching an online magazine, called This Bar Sucks, that promotes artists but also fills a gap in local independent arts media.
Second, Mercury put its custom memes and attitude from the internet into merchandising. The team transformed a garage into a print shop, and in addition to making Mercury merch (like “This Bar Sucks!” masks), they’re creating and distributing T-shirts for artists.
But the impetus for the print shop came at a pivotal moment in June, inspired by one bartender’s homemade T-shirt. On the weekend of Juneteenth, President Donald Trump held a campaign rally in Tulsa, a decision seemingly designed to turn the city into a spotlight-ready powder keg. “We’d all heard rumors of Proud Boys coming to town and targeting people of color,” Orcutt says. He describes businesses boarded up, everyone afraid of potential violence from all corners. “It was a ghost town,” he says, “but we didn’t buy plywood. We set up a tent and handed out bottled water to demonstrators.”
Bartender Nina Lopez was “pretty nervous,” but she showed up for her shift wearing a T-shirt she printed with the phrase, “Mamas Don’t Let Your Cowboys Grow Up To Be Racists.” She agreed to lend Mercury the design as long as the profits were donated. Orcutt and company got the print shop rolling, and the demand for the shirts allowed them to put back to work three staff members who had been furloughed. They have since sold nearly 500 shirts and will donate around $4,000 to next year’s Juneteenth celebrations in Tulsa.
That nerve-wracking night in June, Mercury opened for beer and music, but posted a “private event” sign on the door. “If you showed up and were cool, please do come in,” Orcutt says. “But if you showed up looking like you were in a militia, you’re not invited. And there were people of color in the bar that night who had never been here before because for 10 years they thought we were a biker bar where they weren’t welcome. We’re fighting against that historical vibe.”
The afternoon of Fullbright’s virtual show, a sweet, blue-eyed dog lazed on a patch of sunlight, atop a mat that read, “This Bar Sucks!” A handful of people — bar staff, a sound engineer, a photographer — were scattered around the venue. Some of the band members, all respected local artists in their own right, kept their masks on while they played, slipping them down for an occasional sip of beer. In front of the stage, where usually you’d see music-lovers two-stepping, swaying, and cheering, there was a lone videographer.
In spite of eerie circumstances, the show sounded great and the band was on fire — loud, spontaneous, dynamic, trying to make some live magic that could reach into somebody’s isolation on the other side of the screen.
Though Fullbright admits he’s avoided using online tools and new models for reaching fans in the past, he’s now considering it an artistic challenge. “All this is forcing us to get more comfortable with uncomfortable things, which is always good,” he says.
Working through that unprecedented discomfort too is the Mercury Lounge, which includes not only the business and the room, but the staff, patrons, and musicians who have felt welcome there.
“We put up a sign out front that says ‘No Racists, No Homophobes, No Assholes,’” Orcutt says. “And some folks will say, ‘Well, I guess I can’t come in then.’ The joke is, if you’re self-aware enough to know you’re an asshole, then you’re probably not the kind of asshole we’re talking about.”
Orcutt knows the venue will continue to receive criticism, but he sounds confident that the people on the side of something bigger than themselves will always find their way back there. If not for its public health or civil rights stands, then for the music.
“You can think and say whatever you want,” Orcutt says. “But as soon as I book your favorite Red Dirt band, well hey, I’ll see you here for the show.”
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