It’s a Wednesday evening in Red Hook, Brooklyn. Feral Matt Foster is playing an old acoustic guitar in front of a red curtain on a handmade wooden stage. The crowd in front of him sits on benches that resemble church pews. The space feels old, but it’s been operating for less than a decade. There are white-haired neighborhood folks interspersed among the mostly 20- and 30-something crowd. Halfway through the show, a basket is sent around to collect tips for the performers. Foster is hosting Roots and Ruckus night: a free, weekly folk show at the Jalopy Theater.
Folk’s first revival arrived — famously — in the 1960s, and while contemporary bands like Dawes, the Lumineers and Mumford & Sons all take cues from that movement, they temper it with the grandstanding of contemporary pop. Conversely, the music being made in the small, regional enclaves of “traditional folk” feels like it’s specifically designed for intimate spaces. That may have to do with its reference points: “traditional folk” has roots in the recordings from the Depression Era or earlier — everything from Appalachian ballads to rough, unproduced field recordings. There is a profound, unshakable pain in that music. Though there are plenty of sorrowful songs from every era, there’s a specific rawness and deep-seated ache to traditional folk music that is largely foreign to contemporary folk and pop.
That’s largely because traditional folk music has typically grown out of rural America, and that America is shrinking. With rapid urbanization, cities have expanded and suburbs have transformed; a 2013 U.S. census reported that, from 2010-12, rural county populations declined as a whole for the first time in history. “Though some small pockets may have access to the rich, rural roots of our past,” musician and Jalopy mainstay Eli Smith argues, “It’s not coherent or vibrant in the way that it used to be.” Farmers have been selling their land or paring down — and with it, culture is getting pared down. Traditional folk and blues often sounds like it’s from another world — let alone another time. Its reference points are becoming scarcer as rural America dwindles. For all of NYC’s history of folk music, a giant metropolitan city with no recent rural history to speak of is an odd place for a contemporary revival to take place.
A native New Yorker, Smith started out as a banjo teacher at Jalopy. In addition to being a musician, he also hosts the Down Home Radio Show and runs two folk festivals — one in Brooklyn and another in Washington Square Park. He helped launch a streaming internet radio station, Jalopy Radio, and is spearheading the relaunch of Jalopy Records — a record label that released Long Island country musician Pat Conte‘s] American Songs with Fiddle and Banjo in 2011, but went quiet shortly after.
Smith grew up yearning for a new folk movement in New York, but it wasn’t until his 20s that he began to see the outlines of a scene developing. Jalopy — and later, Brooklyn Rod & Gun — have been instrumental in its development.
The fast pace of cities and social media can become exhausting. The folk movement offers an answer to this conundrum: the way forward is to cultivate the past. As Smith explains, “We’re left with the cultural inheritance of that era which is incredible.”
Traditional folk music channels a very particular energy — its pared-down instrumentation and often gut-wrenching vocal delivery has a way of making it feel almost eerily personal. “I think [there's a] key to humanity and psychological wellbeing that we’re searching for in the music,” Smith says. Jalopy and Rod & Gun feature a variety of acts, but most of them would broadly be considered “old-timey”: traditional folk music (think banjos, fiddles), blues (slide guitar as well as acoustic guitar) and more contemporary variations of the two.
Jalopy opened in 2006 with the expressed purpose of fostering collaboration between artists. Originally, that meant painters, woodworkers and actors as well as musicians. Over time, it transformed into a folk venue, albeit one that gave music lessons and sold instruments in addition to hosting shows. But its success was hardly immediate.
“For the first six months [of Jalopy's history], we struggled to draw a crowd,” says Lynette Wiley, who runs Jalopy with her husband Geoff. For one thing, Jalopy is located in the furthest reaches of Brooklyn, away from the bustle of stereotypically “hipper” areas like Williamsburg. Yet artists recognized that there was an energy at Jalopy that was unlike anywhere else. It had the closeness and comeradery of a private party — musicians began playing more, bringing friends and fighting to keep the one folk venue in New York City alive. “The folk musicians that were [scattered] around the city with no place to call home took over their venue,” Smith says. “And [Geoff and Lynette] were open to that, which is beautiful.”
“If it wasn’t for their kindness and their willingness to take a chance, we wouldn’t be here,” Wiley says. “That’s how we built the circle.” Wiley is quick to point out that there is very little distinction between artist and audience: The stage is small and musicians that play sit back down when they’re done to become part of the audience. Jalopy offers an open forum for musicians and patrons to talk to one another. Because so much of the crowd recognizes one another, all a new face has to do is continue showing up to be welcomed into the family.
Talia Keren-Zvi was originally introduced to Jalopy by a friend and was immediately drawn to the theatre: “I think, for one reason or another, lots of people share this collective nostalgia for folk traditions, and that’s what pulls us in towards the music and one other.” Now, she works at the theater — bookkeeping, bartending, doing whatever needs to be done. With this increase of responsibility comes an increased understanding of Jalopy’s environment. “Working at the bar has put me in touch with a different side of the community — with the locals, the bar regulars and the neighbors,” she says. “This is where you see neighbors leaving spare keys at local business establishments, dropping off kids or dogs while they run errands, helping one another out in small, quotidian ways.” Jalopy is more than just a venue according to Keren-Zvi, it’s a “watering hole” for musicians and people who live in the surrounding neighborhood.
Feral Foster and his Roots and Ruckus night is a reliable staple. The show takes place every Wednesday, bringing together musicians from several different schools of thought in addition to community regulars like Smith, Lynch and Baird. Foster is a burly man with a commanding presence. When performing, he wears a button-down shirt and an old suit jacket, and his hair is frequently disheveled. But his persona is at odds with his wild demeanor; he cradles his guitar close to his chest, almost pleading, “How can so much come between us? Isn’t life funny that way?” Foster tells jokes in between acts and songs — but while strumming, he’s transformed, often closing his eyes while he sings.
Smith was initially drawn to Roots and Ruckus during its first incarnation in the early ’00s, when it was run by Foster out of a Thai restaurant called the Village Mao in downtown Manhattan. The restaurant was a terrible venue: Foster’s show was hosted in a back room while techno music blared in the restaurant out front. When the Village Mao shut its doors, Smith convinced Foster to bring Roots and Ruckus over to Jalopy. “Feral Matt Foster has been a big part of [the Jalopy community] in his own insane way,” Smith explains. “He does what he does very well. He’s like an antihero.” Foster helps fill the small spaces with warm sounds and clinking glasses while people sitting in the pews sometimes stomp their feet.
A similar spirit of friendship exists in another Brooklyn neighborhood. Behind an insconspicuous blue door on Kent Avenue in Williamsburg is Brooklyn Rod & Gun. Where Jalopy feels more like a traditional venue, walking into Brooklyn Rod & Gun feels like walking into someone’s studio apartment — it is homier, more haphazard, and its connection to the folk community is much more indirect than Jalopy’s.
“I always felt like we were [Jalopy's] redheaded stepchild or cousin or something,” says Chris Raymond, the club’s founder. Raymond sits with me in the couches up in the club’s loft. Rod & Gun hosts public events such as movie screenings and folk shows. Raymond has more-salt-than-pepper hair and a deliberate voice. He chooses his words carefully, rubs his temples as he contemplates. Speaking with him, this much is clear: he is serious about Rod & Gun.
Unlike Jalopy, the budding old-time music culture at Rod & Gun was a happy accident. It began as a private social club for fishing: Raymond would host fly-tying sessions and discuss fishing trips. When he started to get behind on rent, he was forced to begin hosting live music. Eventually, the musicians took control of the club’s direction, much in the same way as they did at Jalopy. “I often have or had guilt about letting [the fishing aspect] of the club disappear,” Raymond says. “I never wanted this to turn into something that could be considered a venue. The community is still the most important part for me.”
Slowly, Rod & Gun became another hangout for the Jalopy crew. Bands like Brotherhood of the Jug Band Blues and Alex Battles would frequent the joint. Jackson Lynch, who spent part of his teen years interning at Jalopy began hosting Premiere Monthly, a diverse series somewhat akin to Roots and Ruckus, but a bit cozier and more haphazard.
There is no stage at Rod & Gun. Regulars sing along to the performers and dance in the small aisles beside the wooden tables. It often feels like Thanksgiving without any food. Accordingly, R&G continues to label itself a social club — not a venue. Newcomers are welcomed and accepted while regulars and musicians can still have a closed, safe home.
The club does not actively advertise. The last post on Rod & Gun’s site was in 2012: a photo of a boat called the Aldebaran floating in Opua, New Zealand. The link to their calendar is small. Someone — presumably not Chris Raymond — maintains a Facebook page with updated events pages. People wander off the street some nights, mystified by the LPs spinning and the soft, warm lighting. “Is this a bar?” they sometimes ask as they poke heads through the open door. With Jalopy, there’s no question: the tavern next door is a bar, and the theatre is labeled and understood to be a theatre and venue. Rod & Gun’s definition is a bit blurrier.
Both spaces rely almost exclusively on word-of-mouth to bring in new customers — but the new customers need to appreciate the environment they’re creating. Lynette Wiley explained that she’s had some customers tell her, “We’ll never tell our [hipster] friends about this. We don’t want to lose the family feel we have.”
Though Rod & Gun and Jalopy are well-loved by this group of musicians, artists and spectators alike, the warmth and neighborliness does not guarantee their survival. On September 23, Rod & Run announced that they’ll be closing their doors by end of year. A post on its Facebook page reads, “Sorry friends, the time has come.” Rent in Williamsburg has skyrocketed, and in the past few years, many popular venues in the indie music scene have struggled and closed. Just blocks away from Rod & Gun, punk venues 285 Kent and Death By Audio closed its doors this year, and Glasslands announced they’d be shuttering by the end of 2014. Raymond hopes to reopen membership soon.
The first Premiere Monthly after the news of its closing broke is packed and sweaty. It’s Raymond’s birthday celebration: Pies, fish and pigs in a blanket are strewn across the picnic table. A Mexican folk band — Radio Jarocho from Vera Cruz]— electrifies the room. The five-piece band has no percussion aside from a woman dancing on a wooden box. A scrawling in the bathroom written ages ago reads, “When this place goes, we’re all done for.”
Raymond’s legs dangle from the loft above Radio Jarocho, watching over his small, shared kingdom.