Country in the City

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

When the country music industry touches down in New York this week for the 39th Annual Country Music Association Awards, Nashville execs might well be smirking as they arrive in a town never known as a haven for the genre. They'll find carefully orchestrated events designed to make New York Dixie-friendly, but what they're not likely to see is the vibrant, if small, local scenes—the Brooklyn country bars, the downtown bluegrass circles—that thrive year-round, regardless of what's happening at Madison Square Garden.

In September, City Hall declared November 9 through 15 "Country Takes NYC Week," with an estimated $30 million expected to be generated in tourist revenue during the CMA's first awards ceremony in the city. Bringing the show to Manhattan "offers residents and guests alike the opportunity to experience our warmth, hospitality, and family-friendly environment," Daniel L. Doctoroff, deputy mayor for economic development and rebuilding, trumpeted in a press release. Early arrivals might witness Wednesday's "Culinary Day," with "country themed" menus at participating restaurants and a special episode of the Food Network's Emeril Live featuring the Charlie Daniels Band; children learning to write country songs in public schools on Thursday; Daniels, Trace Adkins, and others participating in Veterans Day memorials; a "Broadway Meets Country" concert at Lincoln Center with Lee Ann Womack and Trisha Yearwood sharing the stage with Bernadette Peters; and of course, a "Fashion and Shopping Day" of in-store promotions on Monday. In other words, big business in the big city. Country superstars (and awards-show hosts) Brooks & Dunn were even tapped to ring the NYSE opening bell on November 15, the day trophies are handed out.

But anyone who looks between the cracks of this temporary official hoopla will find small but thriving pockets of homegrown country. The last two weeks in July saw the Second Annual Brooklyn Country Music Festival, a homegrown affair at Park Slope and Prospect Heights saloons. September 16 and 17 marked the Eighth Annual Park Slope Bluegrass Jamboree. On top of that, Yankee hayseeds can check Sean Kershaw and the New Jack Ramblers every Sunday at Hank's Saloon (along with Freddy's Backroom, the country HQ in the Borough of Churches), open bluegrass jams every Monday at the Parkside Lounge and Wednesday at the Baggot Inn, the "CasHank" Johnny Cash/Hank Williams open mic at Buttermilk in Park Slope, as well as frequent gigs at Lillie's in Red Hook, Lakeside Lounge and Old Devil Moon in the East Village, and Rodeo Bar in Murray Hill. (In other words, don't look in Williamsburg.)

Alex Battles (right) at the CasHank open-mic hootenanny at the Buttermilk bar in Park Slope, Brooklyn
photo: Shiho Fukada
Alex Battles (right) at the CasHank open-mic hootenanny at the Buttermilk bar in Park Slope, Brooklyn

In the weeks between the Brooklyn festival and the Park Slope jamboree, the city was teeming with A-list country and bluegrass: Dolly Parton playing Radio City Music Hall and Tony Trischka appearing at Satalla; free concerts by Doc Watson, Ricky Skaggs, and Suzy Bogguss at Lincoln Center Out of Doors, and by Big & Rich, Gretchen Wilson, Cowboy Troy, and Erika Jo at Union Square. None of which is to deny the city's reputation as being too cool for country; it's just to ask, "Sez who?"

"I think not having a commercial station has been a big barrier for country music here," says Laura Cantrell, a country singer herself and for 12 years the host of WFMU's Saturday afternoon country show Radio Thrift Shop. "That does limit the audience that gets exposed to new country music. [The audience] is made up of people who come from other parts of the country. If you go to see Del McCoury, there's going to be a big audience. If you go see Robert Earl Keen at the Bowery Ballroom, it's going to be packed with people that are rabid for Texas music. New York is really good at supporting these underground stars."

Besides Cantrell's radio show (which sadly is on hiatus until June due to her touring schedule), traditional country music can be heard on Sunday afternoons and Tuesday nights on WKCR and the occasional segment on WFUV, college radio stations at Columbia and Fordham universities respectively. In other words, no all-country formats and no advertisers, nothing to attract industry at a time when country record sales are on the rise (a 12 percent increase from 2003 to 2004, according to CMA statistics). Nationwide, country stations constitute about 20 percent of the market. In New York, it's about 11 hours a week.

That hasn't always been the case. In the 1970s, WHN's country format put it in the top five stations in the city. During the 1990s, WNYW and Y-107 boasted strong listenerships, but neither survived the decade with that format. The issue, apparently, isn't that there aren't country listeners; nor is it that they have nothing to listen to. What's missing is money.

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Nashville transplant Laura Cantrell, local country singer and WFMU radio host
photo: tinazimmer.com

The Brooklyn Country Music Festival hosted 40 bands over eight days, none getting paid more than what organizer and songwriter Alex Battles collected in a basket after each set. And the Park Slope Bluegrass festival charged a mere $4 to see six bands, supplemented by modest local sponsorships. When you're playing country and bluegrass in New York City, however, it's hard to expect much more. "We play for free beer and girls who smile at us," says Battles, a tireless organizer who performs under the name Whisky Rebellion. In addition to the country festival—where he said he broke even, selling T-shirts to offset the cost of the free hot dogs—he is the force behind the monthly CasHank open mic and pulled together a country/burlesque "Jugfest" benefit for victims of Hurricane Katrina at Southpaw on September 8.


For Battles—an Ohio transplant who's been in New York for 10 years—"Brooklyn Country" is a sort of subgenre, a music for Midwestern transplants, steeped in the '70s but with a punk ethos, grimier than the musicianship of the Village bluegrass circles.

"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.

The CMA awards "can happen in New York or L.A. just as easily as in Nashville," he says. New country acts are "selling as big as the pop acts. It's not too surprising. I think it's a mistake, though. They lose a little bit by not tying themselves into the history of things like the Grand Ole Opry. It becomes a little bit too much like the Grammys or any other awards show."

"New York City has always tried to fashion itself as the music and culture capital of the world, except [for] country music," says singer-songwriter Orville Davis, who's hosted open mics in Inwood for seven years but refuses to take his band downtown to play for the door. New Yorkers, he says, "look at country as being a bunch of dumb hillbillies, but when Tramps used to be open, you used to have Willie Nelson come in, Merle Haggard come in, and the place used to be packed with people that know their country."

Now though, he laughs at the CMA coming to a city with no industry backing the music. "That's what's really nuts—they're going to have the CMAs here with no fucking radio to support it," he says. "How duh is that?"

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