By Michael Atkinson
By Luke Winkie
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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."
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."
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.)
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."