If you happened to be walking along Fifth Avenue between Sterling Place and St. John’s on a recent evening, the shouts of “Ya-hoo!” resounding from the depths of a cavernous bar during a punk-rock rendition of “Hong Kong Collision” were not in your imagination. For onstage at Southpaw, Alex Battles was hollering into the mic, Hilary Hawk was rocking out on the banjo in her red miniskirt, there were guys on standup bass, washboard, electric guitar, and a glass jug at work, and the euphoric crowd just couldn’t help itself. But be careful next time you pass—their fever is catching. Alex Battles’ Whisky Rebellion is not what curious newcomers may have anticipated at the Third Annual Brooklyn Country Music Festival, held at Southpaw in Park Slope on September 9, but then the Brooklyn country music scene defies most expectations. The musicians and their followers come from diverse backgrounds and persuasions—old-time, roots, rockabilly, alt-country, Americana, cowpunk—but as “Uncle Leon” Chase writes on the Brooklyn Country website: “The one thing we all seem to share is the love of old-style country music at its rawest, wildest, and most sincere.”
They come together for the CasHank jam at Buttermilk advertised as such: “Four chords, no plugs, all welcome.” And at seasonal events like the Johnny Cash Birthday Bash, NYC Opry, Kings County Opry, and Jugfest, there are enough cowboy hats, gingham dresses, and affected Southern-hills accents for a full-scale production of Oklahoma!
The mastermind behind these events—the embodiment of boyish charm, the quintessence of star quality, the prince of the tenor banjo—is Alex Battles, 34, from Dayton, Ohio. Alex is tall and blond and looks as wholesome as a kernel of corn, but every other word out of his mouth is the four-letter kind, and he’s both more jaded and more vain than one might have bargained for.
“When I put on a show,” Alex said, “people know it’s going to be something new you haven’t seen before. I work really hard to make sure it runs like a fucking train. And I try to give some crap away to make it interesting.”
But the raffled-off pies and the fifth of whisky awarded to the winner of a “skinniest man” contest don’t completely explain his ticket sales. The truth is, people come to see Alex Battles because Alex Battles is the star, and because they know he won’t let them down.
“Alex has done more for the scene in the last two or three years than anyone,” said his friend “Dock Oscar” Stern. “He’s a larger’n life persona—he’s Alex Battles, man—he is who he is.”
Alex is not the founder of Brooklyn Country, nor is he alone in the organizing efforts. Dock Oscar, front man for the honky-tonk band Sweet William, co-organizes the festival as well as the Kings County Opry, and Uncle Leon created the Brooklyn Country website as a touchstone for musicians and their burgeoning fan base.
“It was all kind of percolating and I just took the reins,” Alex said. Soon enough he realized just how big the fan base was getting and he thought, “Screw it, we can have a festival—why not?”
Thus, in 2004, the Brooklyn Country Music Festival was born as a showcase for ten to twenty bands, depending on the venue. Alex estimates that four hundred people showed up this year at Southpaw, and he expects that number to keep on growing.
The allure of Brooklyn country music is twofold. First, the shows are like best-of 1970s country compilations—all the songs from the road trips of every Midwestern child’s past—played live, with beer and the chance of winning stuff. Second, the music is easy to play. “It’s like punk rock,” Alex said. “You can be an okay musician and still play pretty good country. To make a Nashville sound takes a shitload of polish, but this is just ‘stomp on the floor and go.’”
Three hundred and fifty people turned up at the Cash Bash last February during a blizzard, which tells you something. Even so, once-a-year Cash enthusiasts are not necessarily representative of the still-pretty-small Brooklyn country scene—if one can call it that. A subculture? A subgenre?
“It’s hard to call it a scene,” Alex said. “It hasn’t proven itself to be commercially viable yet. At this point we’re all toiling in quasi-obscurity. I definitely want it to grow, but it’s a question of, Do I have the time? It’s a question of momentum.”
For his part, Dock Oscar is wary about the expansion and inevitable commercialization of the community he’s grown to love. “I worry some fat cat will come throw a lot of money around and ruin everything,” he said. “It’s a delicate balance.”
But commercial success is unlikely for any of the musicians, since New York doesn’t have a single country radio station and few clubs that cater to it. “It’s hard to bring in national acts,” Oscar said. “Those musicians avoid New York because they know they won’t get support.”
It is the aim of the two Oprys and the festival, then, to roll out a “big, fat welcome mat,” as Oscar puts it. It is his hope that the events will build support for musicians and attract national stars, maybe even help launch a country radio station that would give air time to local bands. With just two guys running the show, however, that’s going to take some time.
In addition to organizing events and writing songs, Alex has a nine-to-five job in music publishing. We were sitting one evening at the bland Irish bar below his office on the Lower East Side, and his after-work persona was proving to be very different from the keyed-up front-man known to fans. He looked tired, and he wore a red flannel jacket in lieu of his signature straw hat with the gaping hole in front. The hole is the fault of Frank Sinatra. Alex liked the way those “old-time guys” were always shaping their fedoras by squeezing the top, only straw isn’t really suited to that kind of ritual abuse. Eventually his fingers poked right through in splinters.
The hat has considerably more character now, but no one who knows Alex would dare call it a gimmick. “I hate what’s outfits [and not] musicianship,” he said. Alex has great admiration for the singer/songwriter Robbie Fulks, whose song “Fuck This Town” sums up many Brooklyn musicians’ feelings about Nashville. “It’s like Hollywood,” Oscar said. “It’s all about money and business. We’d be like something they stepped on at the bottom of their shoe.” But Alex said he doesn’t blame the musicians; he blames the market. In fact, he’d take a career like that in no time—though he knows he’s no Tim McGraw. “If I could just get one of my songs covered by one of those guys,” he said, “I’d be happy.”
There are some first-rate original songs coming out of the Brooklyn country scene, like Kara Suzanne’s stunning “Purgatory” and the Doc Marshalls’ “Feel No Pain.” Though he’s known for his humorous, quirky lyrics, Alex said that, true to the country tradition, he draws his inspiration from heartache and loneliness. “I had some woman who was giving me a hell of a lot of trouble,” he said of his first plunge into songwriting. “She was a tremendous inspiration.” This led me to wonder whether being in a happy relationship would stifle a country singer, but Alex said he’s not worried about it. “I got me a real good woman right now,” he said. “Even in a happy life there are moments that can be sad, like your job or a flat tire. Not that I’m looking for misery. I’m all about variety and new experiences. You’ve just got to get out there.”
Somewhat surprisingly, Alex’s rising fame has not made him any enemies yet. There isn’t even a healthy rivalry between would-be leaders like Oscar, Leon, and the festival’s emcee Lindy Lou, partly because Alex is a loyal friend, and particularly because he does most of the work. He doesn’t take vacations longer than a weekend, and said he’d never consider giving it up until he found a protÃ©gÃ© to train as his replacement.
When I asked Oscar whether he thought all the attention has gone to Alex’s head, he said, “Yes and no,” and laughed. “He’s a good friend of mine. He’s a charismatic dude. He does all the legwork, and it’s been good for everybody. I tip my hat to him.”
One thing is for sure: If the Brooklyn accent can be tinged with Southern twang, if the yuppies of Park Slope can be lured to hootenannies in blue collar bars, if the Williamsburg hipsters can bob their heads to some killer banjo-picking on their iPods, Alex Battles is the man to make it happen.
Stacey Cook is a freelance writer living in New York.