Bluegrass music echoes from honky tonks of ... New York?
Weekly jam sessions at the Grisly Pear, led by ‘Sheriff’ Bob Saidenberg, reveal a vibrant and egalitarian bluegrass scene in the Big Apple.
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Back in New York, he joined a band and developed his musical persona as the “sheriff of good times.” In 1996, he cofounded a weekly jam in the West Village. Currently, the jam takes place at The Grisly Pear bar on MacDougal Street. Each Wednesday night, the energetic sound of fiddles, mandolins, and banjos fill the dark rooms. Booths and tables overflow. Tourists wander in, surprised by music they never expected to find in the Big Apple.Skip to next paragraph
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Bluegrass does foster a social environment atypical to Manhattan. Emily Day, a young clinical psychologist, first heard live bluegrass music at the Sheriff’s jam last spring. “I felt like I’d struck gold,” she says. “You just don’t walk into most places in New York and join in. It’s what people in my generation are craving: social events that are worthwhile in themselves, which drinking is not.”
Ms. Day took up banjo. Aside from the Sheriff’s jam, she often plays at Sunny’s, an old sailor’s bar on the Brooklyn waterfront. Sunny’s has a vaulted wooden roof and lace curtains. On Day’s first trip there, the other musicians offered her homemade strawberry shortcake. “I felt like I was down on the Delta somewhere,” she says, “or on someone’s back porch.”
Day likes the lack of pretension of New York’s bluegrass community. A construction supervisor with a mandolin will play with an architect on banjo and a classical violinist. “There’s a universality to the music,” Day says. “How exclusive can you be when you’re singing, ‘You Don’t Have to Be a Baby to Cry?’ ”
Noam Pikelny likes the openness of the culture here, too. Considered one of the best banjo players of his generation, Mr. Pikelny recently relocated to the city after having lived in Colorado and Nashville. “It was mind boggling,” he recalls of his first encounter with the Sheriff’s jam. “There’s nothing like that in Nashville. All the great jams there happen behind closed doors.”
Anyone here can pick up a fiddle and play with someone else. Multiple jams and concerts are held every night in Manhattan and Brooklyn. A website, nycbluegrass.com, and an electronic mailing list, Ponkiesburg Pickin’, track the weekly events.
While Pikelny misses the professional music scene in Nashville, he likes New York’s egalitarianism. For example, old-time musicians (those who play more traditional mountain folk music) and bluegrass musicians have a historic rivalry. In Nashville, a claw hammer banjo player (who frails the strings instead of picking them) would never join in a bluegrass jam. Nor would bluegrass and old-time jams happen at the same venue. But both sounds meld at the Grisly Pear on Wednesday nights.
“Nobody is here to criticize,” the Sheriff says. “This is a party, not a rehearsal.”
The sheriff’s jam can still intimidate newcomers – even a professional violinist like Melissa Tong, who plays in a number of orchestras. Bluegrass jams center around improvised solos, called “breaks,” that take place between song verses. Improvisation was Ms. Tong’s greatest fear. In her professional life, she only performs pieces she has memorized note-for-note.
After months of watching in the audience and assurances from the Sheriff, Tong finally jumped in. She found the experience liberating. “Improvisation makes you connect to your instrument in an intimate way,” she says.
“When you’re classically trained, your brain says, ‘you must execute this phrase in this way.’ When you improvise, you’re in the moment.”
Bluegrass has become Tong’s release from the rigidity and pressure of the classical world and from her daily life in New York. “Bluegrass connects people in the middle of this crazy life to something simpler – a time when people had the luxury of sitting around pickin’ all night,” she says. “We like to feel like we can still do that, even with 70-hour work weeks and cabs and trains and lease problems.”
Unlike Tong, I had little musical training to rely upon when the Sheriff finally convinced me to play. I struggled with the speed. But the other banjo players helped me with chord changes and offered tips.
Like the Sheriff, I was hooked. In just a few months, I was taking my first “breaks” – and belting out songs about the Blue Ridge Mountains.