Last week, at an unassuming West Village pub called the Baggot Inn, a handful of local bluegrass acts got together for an annual group show called the Sheriff Sessions. One of these bands was the Punch Brothers, headed by bluegrass darling and recent Gotham transplant Chris Thile, formerly of Nickel Creek, a progressive act whose clean pop sound sold millions. But this new group, as evidenced by Thile’s rock-inspired mandolin solos and the other Brothers’ whiskey-fueled improvisation, isn’t nearly as polite. Eschewing smoothness and precision, these guys wailed, they sweated, they rocked. It was a hootenanny done right, and bluegrass that does New York City proud.
Unlike the slick country-pop style found in Nashville or the hippie-inspired jam-band scene out west, a growing cadre of New York musicians is taking bluegrass back to its iconoclastic roots with a traditional sound that’s raw, gritty, and a lot more rock ‘n’ roll.
Bluegrass “is a roots music, and it should reflect where it is,” says Karen Waltermire, owner of the Parkside Lounge, which holds concerts and monthly jams on the Lower East Side. “Delta blues sounds like the Delta. New York bluegrass sounds like New York.”
“Bluegrass has become cool,” adds Michael Daves, who hosts the Parkside’s jam the first Monday of the month. “Rock venues a few years ago wouldn’t have offered it, but now bluegrass has been able to straddle this line between the baby boomers and the hipster generation.” Lately, you can find shows and open jams any night of the week, anywhere: Paddy Reilly’s in Murray Hill, Banjo Jim’s (dedicated exclusively to bluegrass and country) and Joe’s Pub in the Village, Iona in Williamsburg, Barbés in Park Slope, or the Living Room and the Rockwood Music Hall on the LES.
The heart of the scene lies in the jams, where professionals and amateurs alike come together to play a repertoire of old standards in the style and spirit pioneered by Bill Monroe and Ralph Stanley. Unrestrained by definition, these shows promote a loose, free, wild style. Musicians with varying degrees of talent and experience flow on and off the stage in a seemingly organic fashion, often simply to head to the bar and grab a drink. Neophytes who just got their first banjo a few months ago sit alongside industry stars like Thile, Mark O’Connor, and Tony Trischka. An occasionally intolerant expert will sometimes make the vibe less inclusive, but generally the spirit is democratic.
Even the presumably least talented people in the room—those in the audience—often join in on the choruses. “The amazing thing is not just that musicians show up and want to play, but people show up—the audience feels part of it, too,” says Uncle Sheriff Bob, a/k/a Robert P. Saidenberg, who at 68 turned to bluegrass for fulfillment in his retirement years. “For me, the jam is not about the quality of the music, but more about ‘Is everyone having a good time?’ ”
When bluegrass first appeared in the late ’40s through Monroe’s band the Blue Grass Boys, the sound had an intensity and emotional immediacy just as resonant as the blues and rock ‘n’ roll cropping up around the same time; Monroe and other budding bluegrass stars held the same ethics as their rock counterparts—matters of women and alcohol often included. The music fell out of vogue until the folk revival of the ’60s, shaped in large part by the Washington Square folk scene: Banjos and mandolins popped up around the Village thanks to legends like Joan Baez and Bob Dylan, and the aging founders of the music achieved a newfound cachet. As that movement faded, splinter scenes formed. In the experimental “newgrass” scene, virtuosos like Tony Trischka created a more progressive sound; others, like Andy Statman, started neo-klezmer, fusing the style with other roots music.
About 10 years ago, Greg Garing, a musician from Erie, Pennsylvania, who paid his dues in Nashville, came to New York and imported the grittier sound taking off today. Known for his exceptional musicianship and unpredictable temper, Garing started the first jam in the city at that time and nurtured young talent; he’s since left the city, but his lonesome, distressed style remains. “It has a resonance with people who like rock ‘n’ roll,” Daves says. “There is something rough, passionate, and classic about bluegrass music. You don’t have a lot of people who grew up with it as part of their cultural identities, so they are able to take it as their own and go different ways.”
Jen Larson, a 38-year-old singer and guitarist
who can be found at many of the jams and will soon guest on A Prairie Home Companion, fell into traditional bluegrass after falling out of punk. “My generation is informed by rock ‘n’ roll and punk,” she says. “For a while, I was listening to punk, and I got really bored. I recognized something similar in traditional bluegrass— it was raw and had similar momentum. Emotionally, it is very direct.”
Furthermore, with no industry pressures— for most, there’s not much money in bluegrass at the moment—these musicians can explore the more ribald, less living-room-friendly aspects of bluegrass made popular by Alison Krauss and the like. “This is not our full-time job,” says Jacob Tilove, an architectural writer who moonlights in the band All Night Cookin’. “So when I play, I just want to have fun. I want to beat the shit out of my mandolin, release some energy.”
The Punch Brothers succeeded in blowing off steam during their Sheriff Sessions gig, throwing in covers of Radiohead, the White Stripes, and the Strokes. “Folk revivalists think of it as folk, and rock ‘n’ rollers think of it as rock,” Daves concludes. “And they are both in there to latch onto.”
Avail yourself of Sheriff Uncle Bob’s jam sessions at sheriffunclebob.com