Entertainers on Marco Island have possibly been more affected by the Coronavirus Pandemic than any other single group. The Coastal Breeze News caught up with several top local singer/songwriters to see how they’ve been coping during these most unusual times.
Gator Nate Augustus is one of the younger entertainers on the island. Much like the music he plays, Augustus has managed to stay upbeat.
“I had to reset and find some alternative ways,” Augustus said. “Some places I’ve played at for years, they’re changing their format as well. Recently, I’ve been getting back to where I’m playing almost full time. I’m playing about four to five times a week—mostly outside stuff. You know, I’ve been playing music for the past 10 years straight. I always look for the best in everything. So, it was nice to get a chance to spend some time with my family. A nice chance to spend some time in the studio and record some music—and write some music. Just get some stuff done that has been put off for years. So it was probably good for me.
“We’re here to make people smile,” he emphasized. “Give people hope. Get people out of that mindset of what the TV’s trying to put them in. Actually, I have a little bit of a new lease on going places and playing places. Because I understand how important it is.
“I did a couple of live-streams. I realized that isn’t my thing. I want to see the people react to my music. It was cool that so many people tuned in to those. It was a different format. I didn’t not like it, but after doing that then getting back to playing live, it really makes me appreciate what I do all that much more. I’m kind of good at putting things out of my mind. And while I was doing the live-steaming, I wasn’t thinking of all the bad stuff going on. It was great that people could do that with me.”
Raiford Starke has also remained upbeat. Starke, who takes his stage name from the name and location of the Florida State Prison, enjoys a statewide following. Musical survival for him meant hitting the road for gigs.
“I’ve been playing in little places all over,” Starke said. “Actually, I’ve been playing all over the state. On August 29, at 1 PM, I’m playing at the Crabby Lady on Goodland. I’ve been playing in Lake Worth, I’ve been playing in Seminole County, which is north of Orlando. I’ve been kind of laying low. I’ve done some online streaming, with mixed results. I’d say, all in all, I really like playing live. Nothing beats that. The way things are looking, maybe in the next month or so, things will open up. I’ve been playing here and there.”
Starke actually contracted the Coronavirus recently.
“I was on my way to play a gig in the Orlando area and I actually did end up with the virus,” Starke revealed. “I did have the Coronavirus. I felt like crap for two days. By the third day I was feeling a little better. It was just a low fever. I felt like I had the flu. I didn’t think it was COVID, but by the time I got my results back, I was feeling better. But it said I was positive.”
Local favorite Merrill Allen has been laying low in his home on Goodland.
“I’ve been doing this for 44 years,” Allen remarked. “And all of a sudden there’s nothing. I miss playing live. There are places I played for over 10 years straight. I played at Snook Inn for over 10 years. I don’t know if that will ever come back. I’m just laying low. I guess the message that I would get out would be to tell people to be careful.”
Another artist who has been a constant for Marco Islanders for decades is JRobert Houghtaling, a former Artist of the Year honoree. At 74, Houghtaling has seen and accomplished a lot. He exemplifies the importance of remaining positive and looking forward.
“I’m building up a bunch of content—songs, and videos of songs,” Houghtaling said. “Then I’ll create a live show—and try to pick up some subscriptions, using the various things I’ve done over time. My dream is to set up a show where I can set up scenes, where I can go from me being live, to a pre-recorded bumper, then back to me live again. Another in which I’ll split the screen and invite another songwriter on. Play a song, then I’ll go back to one of the songs I’ve created before. Tell them where they can download it. The point is to try to sell some music online. We’re living in a crazy age.”
Houghtaling is good friends and collaborator with music legend John McEuen of The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. He’s observed what McEuen’s doing online.
“I’ve derived a lot of inspiration from John McEuen’s online show,” he said. “His inspiration comes from all of his famous friends. Mine comes from our little local scene, and productions that I’ve done. What’s nice is that I can invite songwriters from all over the state now. So that’s what I’m up to; and trying to tame this beast. I’ve got tons of songs to record. I’m writing new tunes, so I’m mainly concentrating on that.
“After almost 50 years of night after night doing live shows,” Houghtaling reflects, “I’m just enjoying being home. In fact, I’ll probably stay home from now on. That’s why I’m trying to create a show I can share online.”
Houghtaling has also been finding time to knock out some projects around the house.
“I finally fixed the mower today,” he laughs. “I’ve done a couple of construction projects. There’s no end to that. I decided, heck, I could do that for the rest of my days. A lot of my musician friends don’t have homes, so they don’t have that problem. They just get to be bored,” he added with a smile.
“I’ve been getting a forced retirement. I had three Florida folk festivals cancel, all my corporate gigs, my condominium goodbye parties, I had two St. Patty’s Day Parties cancel. So, I haven’t worked. Here’s a man who worked 300 gigs a year, but I haven’t worked since March, and I’m lovin’ it. It’s given me time to think, and time to write new things. But I’ve also got a backlog of a couple hundred songs that I need to record. So what I’m doing is building content for my upcoming online show.
“On jrobertmusic.com I’ve tried to include everything I’m doing in the studio. I’m doing music videos. Also, I produced one for the folk festival they’re planning for next year, including John McEuen and all of the folk stars. Even when the gigs come back, this is what I want to do. Tell stories; tell stories of Florida. My grandfather was born in 1900, here in Florida. So, he’s seen a couple of World Wars. He took us right up to the Vietnam War. He’s seen plagues, he’s seen fallouts. His story is the same as America’s story. People from upstate New York, people from Michigan, people from Ohio. They’ll recognize the same tunes; they’ll recognize the same stories. JRobert-floridafiddler on YouTube, that’s where I’m posting a lot of content.”
One of Houghtaling’s most famous works is his Florida Fiddler show that includes storytelling, original tunes and interpretations of enduring classics. His Florida Fiddler shows usually sell out.
“My little show, JRobert Florida Fiddler, is a show of history, heritage and hope,” he explains. “It’s a three-legged stool. You can’t do it with two. The heritage… it’s the backbone of our civilization, our country. I’m very fortunate to be in that situation where I can play with all the variables, but I have a lot of friends who are out of work right now. They’re not doing day jobs, they are artists. They are writing mighty songs that will come out of this. Songs that will carry us through, not just entertainment. It a rich heritage that touches the very soul of our culture.
“I’ve got a lot of things ticking up there,” he says, tapping a finger to his temple. “And I like sharing. And once you get into that mindset—that zone—magic is produced. It’s a connection between me and the audience. It’s really magic when you think of it. The arts take you into another extreme. Vibrations are hitting your ears. When you get into the arts it’s subliminal. Sure, you see the painting on the wall, but there’s something magical going on; the colors transcend. They take you into another place that we all feel. When you gather ears together it’s magnified… the feelings.
“We’ve all been through the same things indirectly. It’s the history, the heritage, the hope that brings us together. I don’t know why, but you have to live through tragedy. And you have to have hope. Because hope’s the only thing that’s going to get you through sometimes. Negative talk’s not going to get you through.”