“Sheriff Uncle Bob runs the show,” explains a thirtysomething woman playing a worn guitar in between chugs of beer. “He’s the sheriff of good times, so if you’re not having a good time, it’s time for you to go.” Sheriff Uncle Bob stands six foot two, six foot three maybe with the cowboy hat, and as the self-proclaimed lawman and musical leader of this here bar (read: Baggot Inn), it is his sole duty to strap on a Dobro and rock you till the wee hours of every Wednesday night. Well, maybe more like “pick” you or just steer you into some kind of knee-slapping fervor until you’re convinced your real home is a backwoods farm in southern Kentucky. Either way, it’s fair to say that Bob, co-founder Tom “Banjo” Hanway, and the other mandolin, flute, guitar, fiddle, harmonica, and stand-up bass players will leave you feeling far, far away from New York City.
To love bluegrass music is to love that everyone else hates it. You turn it up really loud with a sort of F-you-if-you-don’t-like-it attitude, the way kids did with rap at first, only bluegrass never became popular. But the soundtrack to O Brother, Where Art Thou, which won five Grammys and more airtime than a banjo’s seen since the advent of television, has swooped down to save bluegrass from its own pop obscurity . . . for the moment anyway, because obscurity has always been half the draw.
Bluegrass documents the life and times of poor, hardworking country folk and their desire to have a shit-kicking good time. It’s pure, raw, and in its truest form, completely separated from the drive for profit (and, consequently, the music industry). There are no pretensions, no expectations, and nothing to live up to except your fellow musicians.
And on Wednesday nights they line the walls and crowd into tightly packed circles at the front and back end of the bar, stomping and hollering, spilling beers and trying to out-pick one another. The main event is in the back, where upwards of 20 players scatter around the mostly seated crowd. Sheriff Uncle Bob works the room, nodding to a player that it’s time to rip a solo or stepping into a timid group to bend the strings himself.
There’s really no “stage,” just open spaces in between tables and chairs where people find room to join. And even if you’re not playing something, you’re still very much a part of the show. Sing loud if you know the lyrics, clap if you don’t, or just sit there and yell every once in a while if clapping isn’t your style. If you have a cell phone, you can place excited calls to your friends about how you “never knew this kind of music existed around here,” and hold the phone out so they can listen too.
That inclusiveness is the best thing about bluegrass and perhaps one of the reasons it doesn’t fly in the mainstream, where the people you’re watching are usually much cooler than you. Bluegrass, on the other hand, is right there in the trenches. When the guitars go back in the cases, they’re still the guys and gals next door. And that’s the way they want it.