About a year ago, Dock Oscar of the band
Sweet William, got to thinking. He had music on his mind but
it was not the thrashing angst of rock, the catchy cheese of
pop, or the pounding bass of rap. No, Oscar was thinking about
the sweet, smooth sound of country music.
Last November, he turned those ruminations into reality and introduced the Kings County Opry (KCO), a monthly country music hootenanny.
"I love the music and there’s no show like this one in Brooklyn," Oscar said.
Beyond the din of the cavernous bar that is Freddy’s Bar and Backroom, at 485 Dean St. on the corner of Sixth Avenue in Prospect Heights, tucked away below a few dimly lit stairs leading to the backroom, the KCO comes to life on a recent Thursday night. Stage lights illuminate five empty chairs arranged in a neat semicircle around a single microphone in preparation for the evening’s activities. Instead of bar chatter, musicians quietly greet one another while tuning instruments - before they let loose.
On the third Thursday of every month, local country, old-time, and bluegrass musicians, and their fans, crowd the backroom at Freddy’s amid glossy wooden tables scarred with scribbled names and hearts from previous visitors. The etchings tell the same story that many of the artists share in their music.
"Oh darling you’re the last thing I needed," sing Alex Battles and Lael Logan on May 13 in a sweet, Southern-drawled unison as the opry unfolds. "The last thing I needed was a girl/boy that I could love, but you didn’t leave me feeling cheated."
Love affairs, broken hearts, big-town boys and old, country roads echo throughout the evening, but what starts out slow eventually gives way to hand-clapping, feet-stomping beats that excite the tightly packed audience members.
"I’ve never seen country music anywhere around the city," says Karin Shinn, of Claremore, Okla. Shinn, who lived in Brooklyn for 13 years, spent the pre-opry minutes complaining to Isabel Goldstein of Manhattan about the lack of country music outlets in the tri-state area. "There aren’t even any country music radio stations that I know of here. It’s like it just doesn’t exist."
Enter Dock Oscar.
"I was inspired by other jam shows like Alphabet City Opry in Manhattan," said Oscar. "There are a few live venues in Brooklyn, but most are rock-oriented. There’s nothing for this kind of music that’s a guarantee."
Also enter Freddy’s Bar and Backroom.
Every KCO begins with an hour-long song circle, in which a group of musicians sit at a microphone and perform various songs in turn. The opry’s song circle in May featured Oscar, Battles, Logan, Pablo Conrad and Aaron T. Ryan, each singing a cappella or accompanied by guitar or Dobro, a guitar popular in bluegrass that has metal plates on its face that make the strummed strings resonate and act as a natural amplifier. While Oscar, Battles, Logan, and Ryan mainly crooned love songs, Conrad sang about the devastation of war.
Conrad was not alone in his politicizing. Freddy’s apparently has an agenda as well.
Adorning the backroom’s walls are pictures of rats with swastikas and rats wearing barred Nets jerseys - both jabs at real estate developer Bruce Ratner, whose plan to build an arena for the New Jersey Nets requires Freddy’s be demolished.
What will Brooklyn’s country music lovers do if Freddy’s is demolished and replaced with a basketball arena?
"I’d have to find a place that can accommodate live music and trusts me to do it," said Oscar. "The best thing would be for Freddy’s stay put."
Oscar and Donald O’Finn, who owns Freddy’s, have a relationship based on trust and confidence. O’Finn allows Oscar the freedom to assemble the show without asking any questions. So, while developers and politicians debate the proposed arena, the musicians at the KCO debate life, love and loss.
The Chelsea Train Gang, an old-time band based in New York City, made their way to the stage following the song circle. The music of Alan Friend, Michaela Hamilton and Dotty Moore, ripped through Freddy’s, prompting claps and stomps around. From the sounds of support emanating from the crowd, it is obvious that there would have been a whole lot of swinging, shaking and kicking across the floor had there been room to dance.
"Dock is reviving a folk music scene that’s been moribund," said Jerry Hertz, a musician from Park Slope. "What it lacks for in musical sophistication, it makes up for in musicality and feeling."
The show’s closing act, Lousy Cowboy Music - who definitely do not live up to their name - rocked the backroom floor past midnight. Classified as a combination of newgrass, jazz, western, folk, Irish and old-time music, Scott Elliot, Brian Aherne, Joel Wennerstrom and Kim Fox, alternating on instruments and vocals, performed everything from poignant ballads to thunderous romps. Andy Jameson added the smooth and hollow sound of the bodhran drum on several of the band’s songs.
Kiel Mead and Karen Asprea, students at Pratt Institute, attended the opry to watch Wennerstrom, Mead’s drawing teacher, perform.
"I’ve never seen anything like this before," said Asprea. "I’ve been raised listening to this music, and I’ve never had the chance to see it live. You just respect it more seeing it live."
The next King’s County Opry will be held on Thursday, June 17, at Freddy’s Bar and Backroom (485 Dean St. at Sixth Avenue in Prospect Heights). The lineup includes: 8 pm, song circle; 9 pm, The Ebony Hillbillies; and 10 pm, Shotgun Shack. Admission is free. For more information, call (718) 622-7035.