Bart Budwig is one of the most underrated musicians in Oregon.
Maybe it’s because he plays a style of music that isn’t really rock and isn’t really country. Or maybe it’s because he lives in gorgeous, but sparsely populated, Wallowa County in Eastern Oregon. Regardless, he’s been steadily churning out album after album of wonderful cosmic Americana music from his recording studio in Enterprise, Oregon’s historic OK Theater for the better part of a decade.
Budwig released his latest record, “Another Burn On The Astro Turf,” in January via Portland label Fluff and Gravy. Normally, we at opbmusic would be trying to line up a session with him right about now. But these are strange times. Instead, we reached out to Budwig because he recently found himself in the middle of an incredibly odd, confusing, and increasingly dangerous international incident earlier this month while on tour in Western Europe.
As Budwig was in the middle of a string of dates in Austria, Germany and Switzerland, the coronavirus outbreak was declared a global pandemic by the World Health Organization and cases spiked in nearby northern Italy. Countries across the world, including the United States, responded by closing borders and instituting travel bans which resulted in a wave of travel panic that threatened to engulf Budwig and his bandmates.
We chatted with Budwig to find out what happens when you’re touring abroad and a global pandemic breaks out. We also got his take on what COVID-19 related business closures and event bans might mean for the arts scene in rural Eastern Oregon.
Jerad Walker: Had you toured extensively abroad before this trip?
Bart Budwig: This is my third month-long tour in basically the German speaking countries — Germany, Austria, and then Switzerland.
Walker: Did you have any apprehensions before heading out?
Budwig: I don’t think so. No. Nobody was really talking about stuff to be apprehensive about.
Walker: When you got over there, was there a moment or an inflection point where that changed?
Budwig: I feel like it was really sudden. Let me look at my calendar real quick. I got there on the 26th [of February] and then I feel like people were maybe talking about it a little bit.
I remember the first joke. Most [of the] shows were well attended, but the show in Hamburg wasn’t very well attended. Someone made a joke that it was because of the coronavirus. That’s probably like the first time at a show that I personally heard a mention of the coronavirus. It was super quick. In two days, I went from playing shows, and then all of the shows were canceled. Basically, within three days.
Walker: Was there a catalyst for that?
Budwig: There was a point in Germany early on in the tour where they canceled all events with above 1,000 people. And so, in my mind I was like ‘Well, you know, we’re gonna have 30 to 100 people at every show, so I’m not really worried.’ I thought that it wouldn’t affect me, or I hoped I should say.
All of a sudden everybody started panicking and texting me to get home. That’s when I heard that the Austria border shut down. The Swiss and Austrian border shut down. That was part of the response. Then events were shut down. So, my band flew out on Sunday, March 15, and I drove 15 hours to return all my rented gear in Austria so I could drive back to Germany and return the van and figure out a way to fly home.
Walker: Was there any confusion when the U.S. government announced that they were going to have a travel ban from Europe? I believe that was on March 11.
Budwig: That’s when everybody was freaking out and texting me to leave right away because they felt like I wouldn’t be able to get home at all. So, yes. I feel like most people initially thought that I couldn’t get home. You know when you panic and then you text the people you care about. That was my experience with pretty much [all of my friends and family]. And then [I did] a little more research, and [found out that I was OK to return] as a U.S. citizen.
Walker: What was it like arranging travel to get back to the United States?
Budwig: I had a ticket with Iceland Air. One thing that was unfortunate was that we had to buy four more tickets that were basically 50% more expensive than the original tickets we got as well. Obviously, that was a bummer.
So, I called Iceland Air and asked [the customer service agent] if I could leave Tuesday or Wednesday. I was actually really impressed with their customer service. I’ve only worked with them once, but they were really nice and did a good job. But this [customer service] guy sounded like he was up, like, all day long. He sounded like he was having a horrible time at work with a ton of stressed out people. I could just hear it in his voice.
I don’t really have money. I was going to just stay there and use my original ticket so I could save money. The main reason I did fly back is because I was very concerned that everything was going to get canceled and there wouldn’t be any more flights. And then I would be in Europe for like four months or something. And I wanted to avoid that if possible.
Walker: Bart, you were on the ground in Germany for a little while. What were the German people’s reactions to the virus?
Budwig: There weren’t any face masks available and toilet paper was scarce, and there were certain people who still wanted to do like small get togethers for like their sanity and, you know, just being human and trying to make the best of things. But the Munich airport was totally dead.
Walker: What was it like departing Europe and heading to the United States?
Budwig: It was very simple. Honestly. It was confusing because I got switched from Iceland Air to a United and then a Delta Airlines flight. So my flights were really weird. But in Germany, I was flying back to the U.S. and I’m a U.S. citizen. So they were like, ‘Yeah, let’s get rid of this guy,’ which was great. And I had a couple really good German beers at the airport, which was nice, too.
But then Chicago was horrible because I had a two-hour layover [at O’Hare]. So we landed, I went through security, then passport and health check. I had to wait in the bag check. I had to wait to get my own extra bag, which was a bass, which always comes last. I had to go through checked bags security. I had to get onto a bus to ride to another terminal to get on a Delta flight. I had to go back through security for my checked baggage. And then I ran to the plane and I was there in the final boarding call. I took absolutely no breaks. I don’t even think I peed.
Walker: Americans saw photos of awful lines in airports, especially at customs. It seemed like it wasn’t very efficient. What would be your assessment of that after going through it personally?
Budwig: The part I was actually the most scared about was traveling — just being around a ton of people. I always feel like I’m going to get sick when I travel anyway. It’s funny how the only way I can get home is the most dangerous thing I’m probably going to be doing for the rest of the year because I’m crammed in the Chicago airport that’s full of all these lines. I don’t know why I had to recheck all my bags and stuff. I told my friends it was a “Home Alone” airport experience.
Katherine Rogers took this picture last night. She had just arrived at Chicago’s O’Hare Int’l Airport from London and had to wait in line - and in very tight quarters - for at least six hours to be screened. At a time of the coronavirus pandemic, this is dangerous & unacceptable. pic.twitter.com/4LhNnOUTqD— Wolf Blitzer (@wolfblitzer) March 15, 2020
Walker: And then the final leg coming into Seattle. What was that like?
Budwig: I overheard that this was the last Delta flight from Chicago to Seattle for a while. Chicago was really the difficult part. In Seattle, I was basically home free, which was awesome.
Walker: Now that you’re in the States and you’ve been able to have a little bit of time to contrast and compare how the reaction is being handled in Western Europe and here in North America, are there any things that stand out as obvious points?
Budwig: I was honestly more surprised by the similarities because it felt like everything happened as far as schools getting canceled and people losing jobs and everything stopping happened in this, like, three- to five-day period, and everybody was kind of confused. There’s also a group of people that seemed to be panicking more as well.
Walker: Bart, you’re a small business owner. You run a recording studio out of the OK Theater in Enterprise. You’re a working musician. You’re also a pretty prominent member of the Eastern Oregon arts community. What does this mean for you individually and in a larger sense for the artistic community in Eastern Oregon?
Budwig: The Europe tour being canceled for me, personally, was the biggest thing just because that was a really big investment of time and money. I don’t normally travel like that because it’s so expensive. That’s really hard.
But I think on a bigger scale — I really do think my favorite places are small music venues or restaurants like The Range Rider in Enterprise, Oregon, or the Albatross in Astoria, Oregon, or Laurelthirst in Portland, or Great Pacific in Pendleton. I think that culture and human connection goes from the ground up.
I think my biggest concern is for the people losing work, and then also that we’re going lose all of those spots. The food industry and music industry, it’s generally a labor of love, and it’s really hard to get by, especially if you’re a small, vibrant, awesome coffee shop or diner or whatever. I mean, you know what I’m talking about.
Walker: Yeah, in a place like Pendleton or Enterprise those places are conveners for communities as well.
Budwig: Yeah, but my concern is that that whole section of our culture and community will be eliminated. I think that’s probably what’s kind of bumming me out the most to think about right now.
Walker: Bart, you’re heading home to Enterprise right now. What are you going to do in the next week or so when you get there? What are your plans?
Budwig: I’m going to try to do some high-quality recording with video in the OK Theater and create some 30-minute sets with my band so we can have some content to hopefully raise some funds. But it is a little tricky right now. Most people want to stay home because that’s what they’re supposed to do. But I think at a certain point, I can also help more people outside of my band too.
Walker: I’m very glad you’ve made it home safely. Good luck with the very last leg of your trip. And please reach out and let us know how things end up for you OK?
Budwig: Yeah, for sure. Thanks.
Note: This interview was conducted on March 20. Bart Budwig arrived safely in Enterprise shortly thereafter.