Multimedia Story: Scroll Down To Hear A Sample Of New York City Bluegrass Band Citigrass
By Aisha Gawad
I packed my bags and saddled up my gear
Put on my boots and I’ll walk on outta here
I got no place to go but I sure as hell know
That I gotta leave this city behind.
Such a bluegrass lament is familiar for Southerners. But these singers aren’t abandoning Raleigh or Nashville.
Take the L to Bedford Station
‘Cause I’ve got to get out of this town
I’m Brooklyn bound.
They’re leaving Manhattan for Brooklyn.
If that seems like startling material for a band in New York City – a place without mountains or farmland, and nothing like a honkytonk – the local band, Citigrass, has lots of company.
Southern music, food and fashion are growing more popular up North, culture-watchers say.
Cowgirl boots have become a staple of almost every fashion maven’s wardrobe, and retailer J. Crew is featuring plaid farmer-style button downs. Southern and Cajun restaurants are popping up everywhere.
Prof. John Shelton Reed, a founder of the Center for the Study of the American South at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, says Southern culture is getting a better reception in the North now than in the 1960s.
“I’m particularly struck with the proliferation of barbecue restaurants,” said Reed, who received his graduate degree from Columbia University. “Next we’re going to get y’all eating grits.”
Bluegrass, which originated in southern Appalachia, is steadily gaining a higher profile in the North, according to Citigrass founder Sandy Israel.
Israel, 44, a former advertising executive from Bethesda, Md., bought his first banjo on a whim while wandering in a music store, not long after he lost his job.
“It changed my life,” said Israel. “I just fell in love with it. I was a guitar player for 15 years, but ever since I picked up that banjo, I’ve hardly touched my guitar.”
Israel decided to quit his job and start a band, teaching banjo lessons by day. He expected to find a group to jam with in his living room.
He ended up forming a band of professionals, each specializing in a different musical genre — none of them country or bluegrass. Fiddler Kenji Bunch, for example, didn’t even have a violin when he auditioned. But he was a Juilliard-trained concert violist and a composer-in-residence at the Mobile Symphony Orchestra in Alabama. It didn’t take Israel long to realize that, violin or no violin, he had found his fiddler.
“Since Katrina, people are more aware,” said Joan Gallow, general manager of the Delta Grill, a Louisiana-style restaurant where Citigrass often performs. “But even before that, we got people who used to live in the South, people who read about it, kind of like our version of Anglophiles.”
Israel thinks New Yorkers find Southern culture exotic.
“People in New York like to try new things. People want to check out the new Pakistani restaurant and then maybe head on over to see a new bluegrass band. In New York, you can do that.”
At the Sheepshead Bay Yacht Club in Brooklyn, the sounds of Donna Summer’s “Hot Stuff” leak out onto the street, mixing with the beat of the Greek music from nearby restaurants.
Inside, women in black leather boots and studded jeans are kick-ball-changing around the dance floor. Men in flannel shirts sit nearby and clap their hands in encouragement.
JoAnne Hayden, a dance instructor and founder of Western Steppers, is the woman behind all the doe-see-doeing. She founded the group 16 years ago, after experimenting with a square dancing class and ending up by accident in line dancing.
“I’ve always loved country music,” said Hayden. “When all the other girls were listening to disco, I was listening to Johnny Cash. I just like it because it tells a story, it deals with real life.”
Hayden saw a surge in country music’s popularity in New York when Garth Brooks broke out as a big star in the early 1990s. “He introduced a different type of country music, and showed people it isn’t all twangy,” she said.
The Western Steppers agree that the main obstacle to building a bigger community of country music fans is the lack of a New York City-area country music radio station. Seven years ago, when there was one, Hayden participated in a station dating program that matched her up with a country music lover from Connecticut.
They line-danced on their first date, and married six months later.
Photo Above: The urban bluegrass band Citigrass is adapting a Southern musical style to a Northern clime. Photo Courtesy of Citigrass.