Greenwich Village may have been the start of the 1960s folk music revival, but today, Brooklyn is holding down the fort as the best place to get your folk and country music fix in New York City. Below you’ll find the best venues in Brooklyn to listen, watch, square dance, and maybe even play a little tune yourself.
The Jalopy Theatre
315 Columbia St. (Red Hook)
Jalopy also offers affordable group music lessons for adults and kids, taught by some of Brooklyn’s most knowledgeable folk musicians. Eli Smith—who plays in The Down Hill Strugglers (that’s his voice singing “The Roving Gambler” on the Inside Llewyn Davis Soundtrack) and founded the Brooklyn Folk Festival—teaches banjo. Now in its sixth year, the Brooklyn Folk Festival (April 18—20) is co-presented by Jalopy and takes place over three days at The Bell House.
The Bell House
149 7th St. (Gowanus)
Not only does The Bell House play host to the Brooklyn Folk Festival, but it also puts on one of Brooklyn’s biggest country music events of the year: The Johnny Cash Birthday Bash. Here’s Cash Bash organizer Alex Battles on country music venues in Brooklyn:
“Since I started playing music in New York City in 2001, the venues of Brooklyn have been very supportive of country music. The Bell House is very connected to the neighborhood and does a great job of connecting with the fan base created in the area south of Flatbush by such venues as Freddy's Backroom, Hank's Saloon, Jalopy Theatre, and Sunny's. Fans of country music feel right at home beneath distinctive wooden rafters, chandelier, and bison painting the Bell House provides. It always feels like the classiest barn dance around.”
The Cash Bash is held every year in February, but The Bell House hosts country, folk, and bluegrass (as well as other genres and events) year-round.
253 Conover St. (Red Hook)
Way back in the deepest part of Red Hook, far from convenient public transportation, lies Sunny’s Bar. A New York institution and Hurricane Sandy survivor that houses the city’s longest running Saturday night bluegrass jam, Sunny’s has an atmosphere that makes it worth the trek. Young players looking to hang out and jam after their gigs show up late on Saturday nights to join the older crowd of Sunny’s regulars who keep the tradition rolling with their songbooks stuffed with chord changes and favorite folk anthems. “To sit at home and play for your own amusement is enjoyable, but playing with a bunch of friends at the jam is musical religion. Puts your spirit in another atmosphere,” says Tone Johansen, co-proprietor of Sunny’s and jam participant.
Whether you’ve got an instrument in tow or not, take in the local art on the walls, slide past the figurines guarding the bar (after you get yourself a drink – cash only) and listen in on the weekly gathering of a Red Hook institution you never even knew existed. Sunny Balzano, owner and namesake, is the subject of a recent documentary by CUNY professor and filmmaker James Reid titled Sunny’s Renaissance: Raw Hospitality Along the Waterfront.
154 Metropolitan Ave. (Williamsburg)
|Photo by Tim McDonnell|
In North Brooklyn? Don’t worry—an upstart venue in the honky tonk country music scene is Skinny Dennis, and it has quickly become a staple. Opening in early 2013, the loud Williamsburg crowd packs the bar for cold beer, hot peanuts, and live music. Mr. Zephaniah O’Hora, country singer who leads Tuesday nights at Skinny Dennis says,
“Tuesday Nights are real special. I sing with a group called Honeyfingers (named after the tune The Texas Troubadours made famous). We play much of the catalog of Ernest Tubb, Ray Price and many others. Recently performing the Night Life album start to finish, along with original tunes in the same spirit. There are many wonderful people who come out every week to dance and sing along. This sort of storytelling is hard to find in much of today's music. I think people are drawn to that aspect of it. It’s a real joy to celebrate such a deep musical tradition, in New York, in this modern age.”
Come down on Tuesday nights for Western Swing or catch another favorite, The National Reserve, Friday nights at 8pm for a more 70s Southern Rock vibe.
Brooklyn Rod & Gun Club
59 Kent Ave. (Williamsburg)
This private hunting and fishing club has been opening its doors to folk music on the weekends at 59 Kent in Williamsburg for almost 5 years. A $10 membership for the night gets you access to music and 2 drink tickets at the smallest bar selection in the neighborhood with two types of whiskey, two canned beers, and one red wine (which is a surprisingly refreshing way to pick your poison). One of the best educational jams in the city is the “Old-Time Slow Jam” led by banjoist Hilary Hawke on the 2nd and 4th Sundays of the month. Beginner banjoists, fiddlers, mandolin players, and singers get together to learn the old-time canon and improve their skills in a friendly atmosphere.
Kerri Lowe is a performer, songwriter and storyteller from North Carolina living in Brooklyn, NY. She hosts the weekly open mic at Jalopy Theatre and is currently working on a one-woman show of stories and songs called The Only Thing You'll Lose (or Sex, Lies, and Folk Music: a true story about coming of age in New York City). www.kerrilowe.com