How Brooklyn Became a Bastion Of Independent Country Music

Zephaniah OHora, Brooklyn Bridge, Karen and the Sorrows

In the late 80’s, there was a commercial for Pace Picante Sauce that featured a bunch of cowboys sitting around a campfire eating a chuck wagon dinner. When the cowboys ran out of Pace made in San Antonio (by folks who know what Picante sauce is supposed to taste like, the commercial proclaimed), the cook handed over a jar of a different Picante sauce made in New Your City. Simultaneously the cowboys responded, “New York City?!?” The the commercial ends with the meanest looking desperado of the bunch demanding, “Get A Rope.”

In subsequent years, “Get A Rope” became synonymous with mentioning something that was supposed to be Southern or Western that instead originated from New York and should thus be considered subpar. Years removed from “get a rope” being an catchphrase of pop culture, mentioning New York City is not the sacrilege to Southern culture it once was. Still of course to some country music fans, nothing could spell the antithesis of “country” more than New York.

But even many of those hardliners are finding it hard to admit that for whatever reason, and however it all came about, New York City, and specifically the burb of Brooklyn has become an unexpected bastion of neotraditional country music, Southern folk, and authentic roots that are helping to set the pace for quality in the independent country and Americana realm.

You would be hard pressed to find a name being more bandied about as a bright spot for the future of country music than the Brooklyn-based classic country crooner Zephaniah OHora. His debut record This Highway still tops many people’s list as their favorite example of modern-made classic country done right, and he’s helped shine a brighter spotlight on the emerging scene in New York’s Brooklyn borough.

Zephaniah OHora cut his teeth at a local Brooklyn honky tonk called Skinny Dennis, which he’s also works asthe booking agent for. Named for the 6’11” bass player for Guy Clark who passed away at the age of 28, it has become the nexus and epicenter of support for local country music talent that has allowed Zephaniah and others to branch out with a more national and international focus.

Skinny Dennis is where you can see local country talent worthy of international acclaim. That’s certainly the case with Kentucky native and New York resident Cliff Westfall, who commonly plays at Brooklyn’s uncommon honky tonk, showcasing his original country music like the stuff heard on his recently-released and well-regarded album Baby You Win. Cliff Westfall, just like Zephaniah, is helping rewrite stereotypes about country music in the Big Apple.

Authenticity is often the very first criticism of country artists emanating from New York. But like Cliff Westfall and others, many of Brooklyn’s country music proprietors are often transplants from other locales that have brought their love for country music to the big city. This was the case for Bug Jennings—a Texas native who turned up in the Brooklyn-based wild-assed country band The Defibulators. Though currently not as active as they once were, their 2009 album Corn Money, and 2013 effort Debt’ll Get’em helped galvanize Brooklyn’s burgeoning country music scene as it was just getting its feet beneath it, and they helped build support around other bands.

Support of fellow New York musicians is one of the reasons the scene in Brooklyn is helping to birth such talent, and why that talent is going on to have a national impact. Just like Zephaniah helping to book bands at Skinny Dennis, for years The Defibulators have hosted a well-attended showcase at Austin’s SXSW event called the Brooklyn Country Cantina, cross pollinating country music acts with Brooklyn ties to the local scene in Austin, and other locales around the country like Nashville and Los Angeles. In a super-crowded SXSW landscape, Brooklyn Country Cantina is one of the best go-to showcases of SXSW annually.

Expounding on their talents for booking tours and promotions, Bug Jennings and fellow Defibulators member Erin Bru now work as booking agents for Crossover Touring, which books numerous Brooklyn and New York-based country and folk musicians such as Zephaniah OHora, The Brother Brothers, and other important insurgent country artists such as Sarah Shook (originally from Rochester, New York), Billy Strings, and Michaela Anne. Being based in Brooklyn allows independent country and roots artists from all around the country to gain a foothold in the big Metropolis and build touring routes through New England to find new audiences. Where before many country bands would avoid the big city, now it’s a destination for independent country bands of all stripes.

Speaking of The Brother Brothers, they are another surging act from Brooklyn who help symbolize the folk and bluegrass aspect of the scene. The close harmonies of the identical twins and their debut EP Tugboats have them on the tip of the tongue whenever people ask what great singing duos are emerging. The brothers can be commonly be seen and heard collaborating with Phoebe Hunt—another Texas transplant and former fiddle prodigy who put roots down in Brooklyn and is helping to vitalize a thriving scene where artists challenge and help each other as collaborators, session musicians, and touring buddies.

Country music from New York is nothing new of course, even in the modern era. In the early 90’s, musician and songwriter Greg Garing was one of the essential performers who helped revitalize the lower Broadway portion of downtown Nashville, which at the time was not much more than some boarded up shopfronts and dirty bookstores in the shadows of the mothballed Ryman Auditorium. Along with bands like Jason & The Scoarchers and Th’ Legendary Shack Shakers, lower Broadway came alive again from the help of performers like Greg Garing. But by that time it started showing signs of developing into the tourist trap it is today, Garing had moved to New York City, and brought his classic country sound with him that began infecting the local population of fans and musicians, and building a foundation for what we see in Brooklyn today.

Collaborating with Greg Garing and other New York musicians was Andy Gibson, best known for being the stand up steel player for Hank Williams III and a dozen other projects. Gibson lived in New York for eight years, laying groundwork for old-school country appeal just like Garing.

Another important early influence on the New York country scene was Moot Davis, originally from nearby Trenton, New Jersey. Playing in and around New York helped widen the appeal for country in the city. When the Brooklyn-based string band The Wiyos were asked to tour with Bob Dylan in 2009, it put Brooklyn string music on the national map, and they became national representatives of Brooklyn’s roots scene. Along with genre-bending New York roots artists like vocal acrobatic and beat boxer Adam Matta— who’s also collaborated with the Carolina Chocolate Drops and other country/roots bands, and the eclectic Sxip Shirey—The Wiyos and others started exploring just how far “roots music” could go.

But you can also find true appreciation for authentic country roots on the streets of New York, if you know where to look. “Most of the songs I like are from people that are dead,” says 12-year-old clawhammer banjo prodigy and Brooklyn street performer “Little” Nora Brown. She goes on tho say in a recent mini-doc, “One difference between old time and pop music is it’s very electronic and shaped to make it perfect. But old time music is songs that are more songs that are passed down from generation to generation.”

Of course there’s also room for much bigger performers in Brooklyn, and it has been facilitated by the Hill Country Barbecue venues, including one in Brooklyn (which is currently being renovated to facilitate the growing interest, and set to reopen in late summer, 2018), as well as another location just over the bridge in Manhattan. Along with some great barbecue, this is where New York’s country music fans can see many club-level national touring acts, and where those touring acts can find new fans in the biggest media market in America. Where there used to be few choices for country performers in New York—and most of them were punk clubs and rockabilly bars—now ample stage space and performances slots are making it easier to make a living as a country musician living in America’s most urban area.

One such musician is master Telecaster player and producer Jim Campilongo. Originally from San Francisco, Campilongo produced Zephaniah OHora’s This Highway, and he’s also a member of the New York-based country music supergroup, The Little Willies with Norah Jones. Even for musicians in New York who don’t see country as their primary gig, there is an affinity for the music among the musical population in the city that may surprise many outside of New York.

You can get in trouble trying to list off all the Brooklyn and New York acts playing country these days. Galea‘s Diary of a Bad Housewife album from 2005 is an underground country gem that came from New York. Brooklyn’s Karen and the Sorrows are definitely worth your consideration. CC and the Boys are regulars at Skinny Dennis, along with other great bands. Vinyl Ranch also often supplies country music to Skinny Dennis and other locales. And it goes on and on from there, with apologies to bands and artists not named.

Authenticity and place of origin will always be a well-debated point when it comes to country music, and New York will always feel like a foreign land for country to many, even more so than other countries such as Canada and Australia which share many of the same agrarian and Western-style landscapes as the American South and West. But wherever there is a love for country music, you shouldn’t be surprised to hear it being made and enjoyed, and in the case of Brooklyn, it’s often the kind of country music that’s more authentic to the roots of the genre.

If anything, the old 80’s catchphrase “Get A Rope” is now more appropriate to much of the country music coming off of Music Row in Nashville, not New York.

– – – – – – –

Who else is making great country and roots music in Brooklyn and New York? Please feel free to pipe up in the comments below.