Country in the City

As Nashville invades New York, a home-grown hayseed scene thrives beneath the CMA's radar

"The sound of country music that's played in Brooklyn doesn't go past 1975, which is when the Eagles' influence changed the sound," he said. "We all ride the train every day and we all like train music, which is Johnny Cash. Folk music is supposed to be the songs that everyone knows. They're easy to play on guitar and everyone knows the words. That means Hank Williams, Johnny Cash, and the Beatles, and I can't play Beatles songs because they've all got ninths in them.

"It's not like we're not adding anything new to it," he says. "We're just not taking from anything that came after it," he says.

Leon Chase, a friend of Battles's who performs under the name Uncle Leon, said he has to remain realistic about playing his brand of Johnny Cash–inspired cowpunk in a city populated with actors, artists, and authors.

"There's this New York disease people catch where everyone is like, 'Am I going to get big off this?' " he says. "We're playing country in New York and we can't pull a lot of attitude."

A few years after moving to New York from Michigan by way of San Francisco, Chase noticed a nascent country scene growing up around him in Brooklyn. In response, he launched the Brooklyn Country website (brooklyncountry .com) last year to help build a sense of community among the musicians he was playing with.

"Most people who are in bands aren't rich guys; they don't live in Manhattan," Chase says. "Most people who are doing creative things aren't in Manhattan because they can't afford it unless they've been in New York a long time. In Brooklyn you just get a more laid-back kind of person."

Whatever the reason, a tour of the regular nights in Brooklyn and Manhattan reveals one thing: The west side of the East River tends to be about bluegrass virtuosity, whereas the outer borough caters to drinkin' songs with a modicum of chords. Battles puts his aversion to the Parkside and Baggot nights simply: "I'm a shitty musician," he says. "I can't really play the fucking guitar. I'm good at singing and I'm good at making up funny stories that rhyme."

The borough division might be an oversimplification. The Park Slope Bluegrass Jamboree, after all, was about a dozen blocks from the Brooklyn Country Music Festival. And Rodeo Bar is known for its generous tequila pours. But still—there are the serious players and the good old boys, shows where feet politely tap and gigs where mugs are tipped. Call it the string ties versus the straw hats, the 1955ers and the 1975ers: two spheres of vintage Southern sounds, and never the twain do meet.

"They're just smarter than me," Battles, a straw hat, explained. "You put outfits on, you increase your audience 40 percent."

On the other side of the equation is guitarist James Reams, who leads the Barnstormers—one of the hottest bluegrass outfits in town—and who with his wife, Tina Aridas, organized the Park Slope jamboree. The Barnstormers just released their second CD, on Mountain Redbird Music, and headlined a standing-room-only night at the Brooklyn Society for Ethical Culture meeting house, replete in red-and-white striped shirts and string ties.

"I do get labeled because of those shirts." he says. "There's a part of this called marketing. In this particular market, people are going to be drawn into it, be able to categorize it quicker. In a Northeastern market, I'm best served by at least appearing to be traditional. It's the one thing that, if I had my druthers, I'd like to change."

Despite the "old-time" trappings, Reams insists he's a contemporary musician. ("If you're going to be a real musician, you can't be a nostalgia musician," he says. "I don't enjoy bands like Sha Na Na.") And while his band might look something like a barbershop quartet, his lyrics are informed by the 21st century. The song "Hills of My Country" takes on a rural but distinctly modern issue: mountaintop removal mining, or blasting mountains to extract more coal more quickly.

The Barnstormers play between 30 and 40 dates a year, but only a couple of those in the city the Kentucky native has called home for 22 years. As a semi-professional musician (during the day he teaches literacy at P.S. 110 on the Lower East Side), Reams is less than rosy about the support the city shows for bluegrass.

New York City "is horrible," he says. "The only place is the Parkside Lounge, and that's only on Monday nights. No one would ever say that's healthy. What's healthy is a Friday or a Saturday night. New York is a jazz and blues town."

The city might never have been seen as country because it's such an urban center in a region of metropolitan life, according to Peter Blackstock, co-editor of No Depression magazine, which marked its 10th anniversary in September of chronicling the edges of country music. While Chicago—a big city surrounded by farm towns—has always fostered country- leaning musicians, "people tend to migrate to New York for the specifically urban experience," he says.

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