Country Music Grows in Brooklyn

An unironic country scene flourishes, real-estate woes notwithstanding

As the booze-fueled reverie of the CasHank Hootenanny Jamboree spilled out of Buttermilk Bar in south Park Slope, rebel yells could be heard a block away. This last-Thursday-of-the-month tribute to classic three-chord country music trotted out many of the genre's instrumental tropes, but with twists: Five acoustic guitars shared the stage with two banjos and an accordion, while a Telecaster, a harmonica, and pedal steel (played by a pre-op transsexual) all figured in solos. Jam leader Alex Battles broke his Jew's harp, but a gut-shaking two-string bass, made from the gas tank of a '74 Corvette and a plank of maple, propelled the jam all night.

Yes, the Park Slope jam. Looming condos notwithstanding, the outer- borough country scene is alive, well, and spread out in all directions. The New York Metropolitan Country Music Association has hosted hoedowns for the last 25 years and now holds weekly line dances at the Glendale Memorial Building in Queens; the band, Nashville Attitude, hails from Staten Island. Meanwhile, ersatz honky-tonks are sprouting in Brooklyn's boondocks, including the funky 74-seat Jalopy Theatre near Red Hook, and salty saloons with names like Sunny's or Red Hook Bait & Tackle in the isolated neighborhood proper.

Unlike in touristy Manhattan, once the site of Garth Brooks's Central Park lark, Brooklyn twang is as organic as fertilizer. No poseurs or irony here, or at least not too much: Most participants tend to be talented, intellectual, and eccentric, though not necessarily in that order. The number of trad and alt-country bands whose canon of one-name influences include Hank, Johnny, Woody, and Bob ranges from 50 to 100. "Sometimes a Williamsburg-style element emerges, and people engage in self-parody, the 'Look at us—we're toothless rednecks' approach," says Leon Chase, the dean of the scene he dubbed the Neo-Country Revolution, though he's currently on well-deserved hiatus. "But this has never been a minstrel show."

Leon Chase at Hank's on Atlantic Avenue
Jordan Hollender
Leon Chase at Hank's on Atlantic Avenue
Leon Chase at Hank's on Atlantic Avenue
Leon Chase at Hank's on Atlantic Avenue

For devotees, the scene provides an antidote to the anonymity of city life. "It's communal—the distance between performer and audience is narrower than in other kinds of music," says Dock Oscar, impresario of Kings County Opry, a monthly band showcase held in the Dean Street spot, Freddy's Bar & Backroom, for the last four years. There's a self-awareness involved, too.

Brooklyn's urbane cowpokes poke fun at their surroundings with band names like the Cobble Hillbillies, Gowanus Corral, and Kings County Queens. Some kowtow to tradition, while others employ unorthodox chord patterns and instrumental arrangements as they reflect their surroundings and flash some Brooklyn attitude—often directed at high real-estate prices. In "Whiskey Song," a two-chord Cajun lilt by the Strung Out String Band, the protagonist gives up beer for the hard stuff after getting evicted: "My landlord says I've got to move/Don't care what he's got to do/No place else I can afford/Kill my landlord!"

Another popular act, Citigrass, similarly mixes ennui with aggression: "I like my bluegrass harder/I like my bluegrass fast/And if you have a problem/My boys will kick your ass," goes one declaration; elsewhere, lamenting Manhattan's spiraling rents, they sing, "I'd rather let my status drop a notch instead of losing my mind" on a song titled "Brooklyn Bound." But they might not last here, either. Though Buttermilk is safe from the wrecking ball (for now), real-estate realities are creating an uncertain future for other down-home dives in brownstone Brooklyn, where the stench of stale beer rivals that of any frat house. Standing in the crosshairs of the Atlantic Yards fiasco, Freddy's Bar & Backroom occupies a block slated for seizure by eminent domain. Newspaper clips about the $4 billion project's progress are posted outside, under glass; a sign taped to one wall reads: "Save the Bar, Save the Neighborhood, Save Brooklyn."

The décor is typical kitsch, but "Freddy's is a great listening room," Oscar says. "I scouted around, just in case, and there's nothing like the Backroom: It's located past a set of swinging doors, and if you want to sit at the bar and watch sports, you don't have to be bothered."

Also on death row is Hank's Saloon, located at Third and Atlantic avenues for more than 100 years. (A trapdoor above the stage leads to an upstairs area once used as a flophouse by Native-American steelworkers.) When biker Dave Sheeran bought the place several years ago, he renamed it after Hank Williams and began booking country nights. Three years ago, he moved to Idaho and sold the establishment to Emily Fisher and Rolf Grimsted, who in turn leased the bar to John Brien, who expanded the country-friendly booking policy to seven nights a week.

But now, Fisher and Grimsted plan to either develop the site or sell it for $2.2 million. (The corner can accommodate a large condo and includes air rights.) Still, they're clearly nostalgic: They've considered carving a two-story restaurant and live-music venue out of the space. Fisher has taken extensive photos of the bar's interior; Grimsted recently floated the idea of building a platform that would accommodate construction while keeping the old haunt intact.

Nonetheless, "Hank's, in its present configuration, is doomed," Brien says. "We were lucky to renew our lease, but all the old-time businesses are being pushed out by boutiques with a single rack of jeans that won't buzz you in unless you have an appointment. Closing down Hank's is like ripping the heart out of Brooklyn."

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