Brooklyn Country Music Festival Draws NYC's Maverick Musicians to Gowanus

Alex Battles & the Whisky Rebellion performing at the sixth Brooklyn Country Music Festival at Southpaw, 2009
Alex Battles & the Whisky Rebellion performing at the sixth Brooklyn Country Music Festival at Southpaw, 2009
Photo by Katie Kovach

Some folks think that all there is to Brooklyn is kale, hipsters, and useless artisanal crafts, but Alex Battles begs to differ. He’s the founder of the Brooklyn Country Music Festival, which takes over the Bell House for four days beginning Thursday, August 20. Featuring 77-year-old Ramblin’ Jack Elliott as its Sunday-night headliner and more than 25 additional acts, the production boasts a slate of performers all based in New York City. This year marks Battles’s tenth at the helm of the maverick shindig, and it’s been a long road indeed. But with folk-music and Americana showcases popping up all over the borough, it turns out he isn’t alone in his vision, or his passion for the genre.

Case in point: This year’s inaugural FarmBorough Festival roped in big-name country acts to Randalls Island in June, organized by the same crew that brought Governors Ball to life. “The Times called [FarmBorough] the first ‘major’ festival,” Battles says, but he got his redemption when a recent NYT critics round-up of the week’s best events referred to his “less-heralded festival...going strong for a solid decade.” “I was like, 'All right, I’m in the Times, I don’t care,' " he laughs.

While he may not be interested in splitting hairs over who can lay claim to the area’s first multi-day country music jamboree, there are quite a few features of his version that make it both unique and essential. For one thing, the “Brooklyn” in BCFM isn’t just the locale of the festival, but also the place where its players hang their ten-gallon hats the rest of the year.

“One of the things that really made this happen for me was that my friend Leon [Chase, a/k/a Uncle Leon] started BrooklynCountry.com in 2004,” Battles recalls. Originally from northeast Ohio, Battles moved here in 1995 and quickly took up with the bluegrass jam scene. He’d grown up listening to classic country, and when he began playing music, the storytelling nature of the genre seemed the easiest inroad. “If I know three chords and I can rhyme, I could hang with these guys. When I was corresponding with Leon, he [related it to] this kind of punky stuff — the music of the people who just had to say something. And I feel like there’s still a lot of that in it. But it’s gotten bigger than that since I started.”

Everything expanded from those early bluegrass jams. “We ended up, even in the first festival, with this mixture of string bands, jug bands, country bands, rockabilly, you name it — kind of a catchall. I’ve always kind of enjoyed that, 'cause ‘Brooklyn Country’ can be whatever it is to you,” he says. “There’s all sorts of different people who come at this music from completely different angles. I’ve just been enjoying it, trying to keep the general umbrella wide and inviting.”

He says his key concern is asking the question, “How does living in New York City affect your creation of what we call country/roots/bluegrass music?” and, as one might expect, there’s no single answer to that riddle. “A big part of [country music’s] initial commercial appeal historically is that there were people living in cities who missed being on the farm and wanted a record that talked about the life they’d left behind to go pursue a career,” Battles points out. “The cool thing is that you can say it’s anything. Because what are the expectations on country music from New York City, right? Right now I’m listening to WKCR, for instance. And if I leave the apartment, I’m gonna hear snatches of music outta cabs and car windows and all sorts of stuff. [New York] kinda bombards you with all these things. But for years there wasn’t even a country station in New York City. It wasn’t part of that aural fabric of the city.”

That doesn’t mean it didn’t exist, of course, and that’s another myth Battles hopes to dispel. That was the idea behind booking veterans of the scene like Ramblin’ Jack, for instance, or Sheriff Uncle Bob & the Goodtimers, alongside others who made their mark with weekly jam sessions such as the Kings County Opry in the backroom of Freddy’s, at its former Dean Street location (before Barclays Center forced a move to South Slope), and Rodeo Bar (once situated in the heart of midtown). They continue today at places like Sunny’s in Red Hook and the Grisly Pear in Greenwich Village, and haunting these breeding grounds of old-time talent made filling a four-day lineup easy for Battles in every way except one: “You can’t get everybody on [the bill] you want, and that’s the most sinking feeling in the world. I’ve done it twelve times, and every time I go, 'Oh, but what about these guys?' ”

For many of the bands, the opportunity to play in the professional setting the Bell House offers is the true draw. “To do a big show in a big room — when you’re normally playing in a BBQ restaurant where your fans are listening to you but maybe other people are discussing the weather or something — it’s nice for all of these bands to do a show in a dedicated music venue.”

The only other prerequisite Battles has for booking is to keep as even a split between male and female performers as he can, something FarmBorough (and pretty much every other festival this summer) came under fire for failing to do. “That way, everybody’s voice is equally represented, and that’s all we can really ask for in the world,” Battles explains. “Hopefully there’s some sort of attempt at equality in it, because women must, at some point, get bored of hearing what men have to say.”

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One especially diverse band he’s excited to work with this year is Gangstagrass, an act that combines hip-hop and bluegrass. “I worked a benefit with them in March, and watching them play was one of the things that made me go, ‘I think this festival’s gonna be really great, if I can get these guys.’ ” There are the Defibulators, who have played nine of Battles’s balls, and first-timers Western Caravan, playing back to back on Saturday night. The latter made Battles ask himself, “How did I do nine country music festivals without the Western Caravan?” he says. “It’s crazy. I’m pretty thrilled about all of it.”

Battles doesn’t have much planned to commemorate BCMF’s anniversary, saying that the real focus is the music itself. “I could add a lot of cornpone stuff that I really love to do, like bobbing for apples and this and that and the other thing, but honestly...the bands should be enough to entertain you,” he says, though he does encourage bringing along some homemade pies. There may still be plenty of surprises in store, like the one Battles recollects from the fest’s third year. “[That was] the first year we did it at Southpaw,” Battles says, recalling the venue on Sterling Place in Park Slope that shuttered in 2012. “The Federation of Black Cowboys showed up on their horses. That was the most magical thing ever, by far. We’d only done it in Freddy’s, in a small room...It was a beautiful day, and these guys show up on their horses, just walking around, tyin' 'em up on Fifth Avenue [in Brooklyn]. Oh boy, that was rich.”

The Brooklyn Country Music Festival takes place at the Bell House August 20–23. For ticket information, schedule, a full lineup, and more, click here.

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