As told to Greg Cahill
Megan Lynch Chowning is a seven-time national fiddle champion, touring musician, teacher, singer, and flat-footer. She was nominated for a 2020 Grammy Award for her participation in the John Hartford Fiddle Tune Project. She spent four years touring with legendary country music artists Pam Tillis and Lorrie Morgan, and has played with bluegrass stars Dale Ann Bradley, Roland White, Larry Cordle, Jim Hurst, Chris Jones, 3 Fox Drive, Due West, Chris Stuart, and BEML (the duo of Bill Evans and Megan). She has fiddled and sung on dozens of projects, and has released a series of solo fiddle albums focusing on obscure fiddle tunes.
She has taught fiddle and vocals at such prestigious camps as Augusta Heritage Week, the British Columbia Bluegrass Workshop, Sore Fingers Bluegrass Week in the UK, Walker Creek Music Camp, and the California Bluegrass Association Camp, among others. She has served as a judge at the National Fiddle Championships, as well as other state championships throughout the country. She’s the co-director, with her husband, Adam, of the IBMA-award-winning Nashville Acoustic Camps. In November, she was diagnosed with COVID-19 and recovered at the couple’s home outside of Nashville, Tennessee.
Keep Connected chronicles the ways in which string players are staying in touch with their audience or students during the global coronavirus pandemic and its lingering impact on live concerts and classroom education. Even as society struggles to reopen, virtual performances and social media outreach programs have kept performers in the public sphere, since live concerts, festivals, and other large gatherings remain largely unsafe.
Tell us about your daily routine while quarantined.
I walk my dog, I drink my tea, I run a few errands when necessary, and I’m still teaching my regular lessons—I’ve been teaching almost exclusively on Skype for the last eight to ten years, so that hasn’t changed.
What have you learned about yourself as a person and as a player while working and living in solitude?
One of the first things I did when I started quarantining was complete a 30-day Instagram tune-writing challenge and I learned that I can write, even without inspiration. I always thought I could only write tunes when “the mood struck” or the creative muse came calling. But I was delighted to find out that having played my instrument for 40 years, and focusing on traditional music and improvising for much of that time, I had a much deeper well from which to draw. I also learned that I am equal parts extrovert and introvert and that I am not always as in control of the balance of those things as I’d like to think.
What are your thoughts about how the pandemic has changed the string world, and how it will change the string world in the future?
I have been devastated for friends and colleagues who rely on touring for their creative outlet and income. And while I applaud everyone who has been able to “pivot” and “adapt”—such common buzzwords in this era—I also feel deeply for the people who express themselves in a way that isn’t so easy to change. Adaptability is certainly to be admired, but there are often losses to the mediums that we don’t want to acknowledge, but that still exist, whether we acknowledge them or not.
How are you staying connected with your audience and students during the quarantine? Tell us about virtual sessions you’ve participated in.
We have had to postpone all of our Nashville Acoustic Camps, which are held in our house here in Nashville, of course. But I have created a weekly online bluegrass fiddle workshop, two actually: one for intermediate/advanced players and one for beginners. I was skeptical at first, but it’s been one of the most effective and fulfilling things I’ve ever done. The students get to feel as though they’re in a group setting that builds camaraderie, but they’re all muted so they can try new things without feeling intimidated. I love working on the lesson plan each week. I’ve realized how much more there is to bluegrass fiddling than I previously understood, even as a professional player and teacher for the last few decades. I’ve also taught several virtual bluegrass camps that have all been really fun and successful. As a performer, I’ve done several live-streams for charity and various virtual festivals.
How have you selected your internet programming?
I have kept things very narrow. I felt like focusing on very specific things, like waltzes and bluegrass tips and tricks, helps people understand and identify with me even when they can’t get to know me in person.
What is the response like?
Things have been better than I could have expected. I have had a great response to the Zoom workshops, specifically. I have received more positive feedback from them than anything I’ve ever done.
Why is it important to stay connected on social media?
Well, because everyone else is. And when you can’t be together in person, it’s important for your fans and students to know how you’re managing things and that you still care about them. Which I do, greatly. I also work very hard to curate my own feeds—I interact on Instagram, not on Facebook. I have a Facebook professional page, but no friends or feed of any kind. I found it to be incredibly toxic and shut down my personal page back in 2012. I keep my social media filled with joy and positivity, as well as inspiration from artists and activists who are trying to make the world a better place.
What have you learned about your audience in this difficult time?
I have learned that the old axiom about the most important thing being to have a few loyal supporters, rather than a million fly-by-night fans. I am so grateful to have built real relationships with my audience throughout the years. I think it’s a byproduct of my own intentional interactions with them, as well as playing and teaching traditional music, which is often presented in small, intimate spaces and encourages fan and performer engagement. Also, my audience is full of people who are also players of various levels and that creates a stronger bond, from the outset.
How do you rate your experience with virtual performance?
I’d give it a solid B+! I have improved along the way, gratefully. I had a learning curve around finding ways to express my strengths as a performer in a virtual setting. But I’m feeling better every time. A friend of mine sent me a fancy microphone and I’ve improved my lighting. That helped.
Is this something you will continue even as venues reopen?
I absolutely will. There is a relatively small audience for the music I play, so it only makes sense to continue to engage with every possible person, in every possible way. But the focus will be, especially at the beginning, to help venues return to success, in any way I can.
Any tips for other string players considering this path?
We traditional acoustic players don’t have lasers, or light shows, or backup dancers. What we have is the music, and the stories that go with it. My tips would all be centered around the idea that even virtually, connection is the ultimate goal. Of course you want to be as good at your craft as you can possibly be. But if you’re going to be a performer, that means you are playing your music to create emotions and experiences for other people. Keep that in the forefront of your decisions.
What are your goals going forward as performance venues reopen slowly?
My goals are to get out to some house concerts and smaller venues and thank the people in person who have supported me through this year. I love traveling and sharing traditional music with people who love it and I look forward to planning some small tours in some of my favorite areas of the country. I think the quarantine has only widened my path. I plan to move forward with writing more original tunes and exploring that part of my art.
What projects are you working on?
I’m continuing to do studio work for several artists who are making new bluegrass and country albums. I released a solo waltz album a few months ago and plan to release another solo album next year. Most of the selections on my solo albums were crowd-sourced and I plan to continue with that process. It’s been yet another way I’ve been able to connect with my audience.
Is there a message you’d like to share with our readers?
I actually got COVID-19 last month (at the time of this interview). It was terribly frightening and miserable—I was very close to having to be admitted to the hospital. Luckily, I was able to make it through, although I am suffering from some long-term symptoms. I live in an area where mask mandates are few and far between and the ones we do have are not enforced. I did not travel or do anything outside of the mandates or recommendations. But I got it anyway. I was unable to teach or perform for weeks and I missed it so much, and it created a financial burden for my family. I must say, my students and fans were incredibly supportive and encouraging and I was so grateful for them.
My message is this: please take every single person into consideration when you make decisions to travel or attend indoor events of any kind, or eat in a restaurant, or go to your gym. Millions of people are affected by these decisions, people you’ve never even met. We musicians and teachers want so desperately to get back to the lives we’ve created, lives that are designed to bring joy and exciting challenges into the lives of others. By all of us working together to make better choices, and small sacrifices in the current moment, we can help our planet defeat this horrible virus that has caused so much loss and pain.
And on a smaller note, please change your strings and get your bows rehaired.