An Old Hallow Tree Grows in Brooklyn

Hootenanny in the Hood

It’s 10 O’clock on a Saturday night and the regular crowd shuffles into Sunny’s Bar in Red Hook, Brooklyn. The old tavern located right in New York Harbor is packed. The back room is stuffed with ladies and bearded men of all ages playing fiddles, mandolins and banjos. There are more guitarists than you can shake a rosined bow at. People squeeze by the piano as they come out of the outdoor courtyard where music teachers smoke cigarettes and talk shop before they demonstrate the applied science of musical theory in the real world.

Then there’s Freddy’s Bar that has its monthly CasHank jam session. The premises of the CasHank was to do mainly Johnny Cash and Hank Williams songs that are no more than four chords, though Merl Haggard, Willie, Patsy Cline and other artists have their material snuck in under the wire. At Freddy’s there is a very tight core band that usually is headed by Gary Keenan of the American String Conspiracy that facilitates the jam session invites the tavern patrons to get ups and sing or just sit in on the session with their instrument.

The Bell House, The Way Station, The 5th Estate, The Branded Saloon, and many other venues showcase local artists who are getting back to the roots of country music. But Brooklyn, “Do the Right Thing,” “The Summer of Sam,” Spike Lee and Jay Z? Yup.

What is the appeal? People love music that tells a story. Alex Battles of Alex Battles and the Whisky Rebellion is a local promoter and artist who first organized the CasHank. He always quotes songwriter Harlan Perry Howard that country music should be “Three chords and the Truth.” This is not nostalgia, but it is a different kind of escapism because many of these artists are creating something new.

Battles explains how this renaissance started emerging in NYC around 2004.

“In early 2004, I received an email from Uncle Leon who was starting a website of all these country bands that were playing in Brooklyn. The website was called On it, Leon would write small bios of bands, review shows, and generally foster a sense of community. It was pretty neat for everyone involved. At that time, most of these bands were playing Freddy’s, Hank’s, and Lillie’s (Brooklyn bars). In Manhattan, there was the Rodeo Bar, but that was a notoriously tough gig to get. So all these folks played Brooklyn. It was a pretty cool scene.”

Shortly after Battles started the CasHank at Freddy’s Bar which had its original location where the Barclay’s Center in Brooklyn now stands. Freddy’s was very active in the fight against eminent domain policy in NYC. The bar was forced to move from its long time residence along with hundreds of residential homeowners who all got the short end of the stick. Fortunately Freddy’s was able to move to the other side of the neighborhood, near Greenwood Cemetery and was able to thrive because of its loyal patrons when they could have went belly under like many other establishments that were pushed out during Bush’s and Mayor Mike Bloomberg’s recession.

Battles continues. “I made a survey of the songs I knew, that Hank and Johnny played. The ones that seemed to be written inside of me, that I knew without knowing I knew them, were always four chord songs. I also noticed that the later it got into the 20th Century, the more of Willie’s Tin Pan Alley influence had crept into the music. If you’re a starting guitar player, it’s really difficult to just play “Crazy” at a jam session. So, borrowing from the rules of the Freddy’s Old-Time Americana Jam, (which I think were, no songs written after 1950 and no electric instruments) I made the rules of the CasHank Hootenanny Jamboree, four chords, no songs written after 1970, and no electric instruments.”

Battles is a great songwriter. I was introduced to his music about 2009 when I heard him play live in the studio at WKCR doing his classic song, “You live in Queens” which tells of how the borough is a daunting obstacle course and confusing labyrinth for most people from Brooklyn and Manhattan. I’ve gotten lost there many times and still do! The show was promoting the Country Music Festival that year. Battles once and awhile plays live in the studio at WKCR whenever he is doing a big festival. WKCR is Columbia University’s arts station which plays mainly jazz and academic arts programming. Battle’s most recent studio appearance at WKCR was to plug his annual Johnny Cash Birthday Bash, which is almost always a three day tribute event and is always packed.

 “Raining in Brooklyn” which can be found on the Ev’rything’s OK album on bandcamp, is one of my favorite songs by Battles. It tells of the tribulations of attempting to quit smoking and has vivid imagery which I cannot get out of my head of the author rummaging through the garbage to find cigarette butts to smoke which he reluctantly discarded.

“An Old Hallow Tree” from Sean Kershaw and the Blind Pharaohs’ CD. Moonburn, is one of the first country songs to mention Brooklyn, NY in its lyrics. I got to see Kershaw with his New Jack Ramblers last summer in Red Hook right off of New York Harbor and they put on a show of high energy.

Formerly of Slick Pelt, guitarist Michael Louis, native of Gravesend Brooklyn did the studio work on the Moonburn and still occasionally plays live with Kershaw. In the 1990’s Slick Pelt was playing CBGB’s with a style of rock called Punkabilly.  Louis can be heard on “Hell from the Hills” and “Three Good Reasons” from Pelt’s CD XXX Rodeo, which has many tracks that are premonitions of what was to hit New York a decade later. Unfortunately, Slick Pelt’s frontman, Many Berlingo who could write a genuine country ode that could bring tears to your eyes tragically passed away of a heart condition at 41 when Pelt was starting to get airplay.

Louis as a kid was a prodigy. I knew him in High School and at the age of 16 was belting out Stevie Ray Vaughan and kicking out straight ahead jazz. Louis’ band, The Michael Louis Band overlaps the country genre with twangy tunes with its Texas Blues flavor, even though they cover the spectrum with R&B and other genres. MLB is one of the few rock bands nowadays on the NY circuit that will play extended jams. Louis is a virtuoso and a showman.

Seth Kessel, born in Manhattan, raised in Brooklyn is another notable songwriter and band leader on this scene. Kessel and his main band, the 2 Cent Band has a jazzy ragtime touch which implements a small horn section (tenor sax and trombone). Kessel is a young guy with an antique esthetic. One of my favorite original songs by Kessel is “The Wrong Woman” which is off his Big Bill Broonzy’s CD. I asked Kessel about his influences:

“I started to trace the roots of rock n roll which led me to country, blues and the rest of America’s older music. My mom gave me her record collection which had lots of early folk, acoustic-blues and more. So I started seeking out live music in those genres as well as playing it on acoustic guitar.”

Q: “Who are some of your favorite writers? I’ve seen you do the “Mermaid Song” and the sequel to “A Boy Named Sue,” great songs, where they written by the same writer?”

A: “Yes! Those are both written by Shel Silverstein, the same author of The Giving Tree and “A Boy Named Sue”. He might be my favorite artist of all time. He wasn’t much of a singer or virtuosic musician, but creatively speaking, he was pure genius.”

There are so many great bands on this circuit that I cannot cover them all. There are straight cover bands like the Eephus band that only do old timey songs prior to 1970 and The Red Hook Irregulars that do a mixed bag. There is one group called Van Hayride that exclusively does hillbilly versions of Van Halen. The do an interesting slowed down piano based version of “Ain’t Talkin’ Bout Love” in waltz time. They have a trombone player who interprets Eddie’s licks (that wah wah) on “Jamie’s Crying” which is ingenious.

I have to add that this All American Country Rock revival is not confined to Brooklyn, it can be found in the other boroughs of NYC (Manhattan, Queens, Staten Island and the Bronx) as well as Yonkers, but Brooklyn is the epicenter of this artistic activity. Why not, the place has always been the home of artist. John Coltrane, Cecil Taylor, Spike Lee, Max Roach, H.P. Lovecraft, Woody Guthrie, and others lived here at one time or another. Even Allen Ginsberg spent time here when he taught at Brooklyn College, the very place where I am writing this article. But all stuffiness aside, Battles, Kessel, Louis and the rest are fun to go see play live. So the next time you come to NYC take a tip from Hank Williams and “let’s go honky tonkin’ baby!”





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