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Opry fever afflicts Big Apple

By Brian Steinberg, December 1998

Traffic. Young urchins asking for another dime. The roar of the bar crowd. These are the sounds of gritty Alphabet City. So are the plaintive tones of Hank Williams, the scratch of the fiddle and the cry of something authentically country.

Step into 9C, a bar named for the New York City corner it inhabits, and make yourself at home. This 80-seater just might be the most authentic honky tonk north of Nashville. And you won't hear too much Merle Haggard here. It's frowned upon. From 9:30 p.m. to 1:30 a.m., Ernest Tubb, the boom-chicka-boom of early Johnny Cash and Hank Williams rule the evening.

"It's much more of the hard-core honky tonk and historic country music," muses Monica "Li'l Mo" Passin, who leads Li'l Mo and the Monicats, and is a long-time resident of New York's roots-music scene. Would a request for Eddie Rabbit be tolerated? "Oh, absolutely not," Passin says. "The roots go a lot deeper than that."

The Alphabet City Opry, as it is known, was formed by Greg Garing, a Nashville veteran of early-30's vintage. He is, judging by his talk, an obvious musical maverick.

"I was really lucky not to be part of that alt.-country thing," Garing says with a bit of a sneer during a telephone call from a recording studio. "I was part of the tail end of the real thing. When I moved to Nashville, Roy Acuff and Bill Monroe were still in the Opry, and they were still kicking it down there. It's changed so much."

Alphabet City Opry shows have attracted such musical luminaries as Steve Earle and David Byrne. For weeks on end, after the shows received much attention in the New York press, country fans lined up on the sidewalks to get in. And the bar was jammed.

Elena Skye DJ's on some evenings and says she is amazed by the momentum the Opry seems to have.

"I was looking at the records we were playing last night," she says on a recent Tuesday afternoon, one day after an Opry session. "Somebody asked for some Merle Haggard, but we really have only early Merle stuff. Lefty Frizzell. Johnny Horton. Ray Price. A lot of bluegrass. From the moment you walk in 'til the moment you leave, you're really in a honky tonk world." Skye is a bluegrass artist who leads Elena Skye and the Demolition String Band. Garing produced her recent album.

9C didn't always host a packed house of rabid fans of bluegrass and old-timey country. In fact, at one time, this transitional neighborhood on Manhattan's Lower East Side was better known for urban decay and crack nomads than it was for a high lonesome sound.

But when Garing moved north after a long stint of odd music jobs in Nashville, he got it in his head to bring the sounds in his head to the Big Apple.

Garing has a long history on the fringes of the Nashville scene. At 19, he drove a trailer down to Nashville from his childhood home of Erie, Pa., and decided to learn from the best.

"I parked a motor home in the campgrounds where Bill Monroe's son had a nightclub," the musician recalls. "I went down to find those cats and to learn how to play, and I did it."

Garing would play with such luminaries as Jimmy Martin, Claude Moody and Wilma Cooper. "I was really lucky," he says. "I got to learn it for real, and the whole time, I was just amazed that it was this thing that just existed in itself, and didn't go anywhere. Nobody listened to that kind of music anymore. I stumbled into it."

And he kept stumbling. In various clubs and in various musical permutations. "I played and played and played and played to nobody in Nashville," Garing quips. "Everybody told me I was crazy."

And then, there was Tootsie's. Or, more appropriately, Tootsie's Orchid Lounge, a near-legendary downtown Nashville dive that Garing calls "the quintessential honky tonk."

With no real dressing room and room for only about 120 listeners, Garing would hold forth, and the city noticed. "After all that time, I don't know why it happened," he says. "Or why it changed."

Then came 1994.

Soon the rootsy effort became a scene unto itself, and Garing grew restless and frustrated. "I had risked life and limb rotting in the back seat of a limo with Jimmy Martin, and I had lived dirt poor and crazy" he says. "To live that much and learn that music, and (to have) a bunch of kids coming in listening to Iggy Pop two years earlier and saying they are playing country music, that just turned me off."

It was time to move.

Garing hit New York and within two hours, knew he wanted to stay here. At first, he set up shop at Coney Island High, a music club in the city's legendary St. Mark's Place. From there, it was on to 9C. "We would wind up playing like jazz and swing and stuff," Garing says. "We did this maybe for two months, and it was just friends hanging out in this small corner bar."

When he returned from a European trip a few weeks later, the place was packed. As Li'l Mo describes it, Monday night at 9C is "happening in the moment, and that's what I think is so special about it. It's about creating it on the spot."

By last April, even the New York Times had noticed.

Often, the band consists of people like Andy Gibson on pedal steel, Diane Stockwell on fiddle, Tripp Henderson on harmonica, along with special guests at random moments. The Demolition String Band might make an appearance. Citizen Kafka, "a fiddle player extraordinaire," as Passin calls the musician, might come at another time. The words and music of Bill Monroe, Loretta Lynn and George Jones fill the air.

And the entire evening is conducted around one main microphone that people move in and around in order to solo, Passin says. "You learn how to dance in and out of that, and not mash each other in the head with your head or your guitar," Passin says. "It keeps it all at a very listenable volume, so it's not overwhelming and the singers can be heard."

There is little amplification, basically for the guitars and pedal steel guitars. A dampened rhythm guitar acts as a drum.

Now, just as suddenly as the Opry sprang from seemingly nowhere, it looks in danger of fading away. Garing has not been by to play in about three weeks and shows signs of growing weary, of wanting to turn to other projects. He wants to work with some of the Opry regulars in smaller venues and on individual projects, he says, and he wants to turn more attention to a rock project he is developing. The Opry has "its strong points, and there's good musicianship and some bad musicianship," Garing says.

"It became very time-consuming over the summer, and it kind of steered me away," Garing says. "I'm very old-school, and I'm very much the boss, and if I'm going to do something, it's going to be done right."

For her part, Li'l Mo believes that while Garing has been at the center of the Opry from the start, it still has players. But does it have a front man? "There are a lot of players, but a few front people,' she notes. "It may be changing a little bit."

But Skye thinks the Opry will go on as will a lot of country-oriented side projects that spin on around it at other locations in the city. Garing' s absence might cause an "adjustment," she says, but "there's enough devoted music to keep it going, I think."

"People are splitting off and doing their own thing, and it might be a home base for a lot of people to come in," she remarks. "I know that when I'm around, I'll still be stopping in because it means so much to me."