Country Music Grows in Brooklyn

An unironic country scene flourishes, real-estate woes notwithstanding

Unperturbed by these developments, every Sunday night for the last four years, Sean Kershaw and the New Jack City Ramblers have convened at Hank's to play both countrified classics and originals. On Monday nights, a house bottle of Jim Beam sits onstage during live-band Kuntry Karaoke, hosted by the Demolition String Band—all singers are offered a shot of "liquid courage." At a recent soiree, a gal in boots channeled Loretta Lynn, an Eli Manning lookalike danced a jig as he warbled "The Devil Went Down to Georgia," and a daytime regular in neon-red lipstick and a matching outfit mangled "Six Days on the Road."

"Hank's was the center of it all for a couple of years—it's hard to think that it'll be gone," says Chase, he of the hiatus: After a successful tour of the Midwest roller-derby circuit, he disbanded his band, Uncle Leon and the Alibis, and stopped updating his website, BrooklynCountry.com., though he's since passed the baton to another webmaster. Chase grew up south of Detroit, where his parents and neighbors, including many transplants from Kentucky, listened to country. He found that to be true in Brooklyn as well: "After the scene began to gel, we'd hold events and were just amazed at how many people came out of the woodwork," he said. "The site did its job."

Despite the probable demise of these venerable venues, the inbred scene they helped spawn will carry on, insists native Ohioan Alex Battles, a founder of the CasHank tribute who works in music publishing and helms the band Whisky Rebellion. The inbreeding, and uneasy culture clashes, are actually key to the appeal. In a sense, rap and country are kin here: Serious performers often adopt outlaw personae and spin observational, journalistic narratives. Sometimes, the styles explicitly intersect: Lighthearted crossover moves include Citigrass' version of "The Thong Song" and Uncle Leon's cover of "Baby Got Back"—a pinnacle of country-rap fusion. (It loads automatically on Hank's Saloon's MySpace page.)

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

Such an environment takes—and attracts—all kinds. One Kuntry Karaoke regular, a mutton-chopped aspiring songwriter and trucker from Nashville who goes by the stage name Mitchell Ray Savage, found the place on a whim. Intent on learning another language, he decided to study Arabic. As he drove his rig down Atlantic Avenue one day, he noticed the concentration of Arabic signs, and then discovered Hank's. "This is as authentic as anything down South," he enthuses, his mouth racing NASCAR-fast as guitarist Boo Reiners squeezes lightning from his Tele. "I tell my buddies back home, but they don't believe me."

Also hard to believe is the notion that Brooklyn's Caribbean population actively helps keep the music alive. The playlist at the Paradise Club in Bushwick includes calypso, reggae, and an obligatory country set, because the joint is frequented by St. Lucians, who "think they invented country music," explains Joseph Greenidge, a former calypso singer and transplant from Grenada who goes by the name of Joe Country and is Brooklyn's answer to Charley Pride. He designs a line of western garb, Storm Country Wear, and has cut several songs with session players, including "Caribbean Country Boy" and "I Don't Want to Work for the Big Wheels." Though the Apollo crowd predictably booed him off the stage, Greenidge persists: "It's music that jabs you right in the heart," he says. "If you can't stand country, you can't stand reality."

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