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Brooklyn Country

The Defibulators and Andy Friedman and the Other Failures rockin’ the country music scene in Williamsburg

By Marc Gabriel Amigone

Twangin’ guitars, grinding washboards and ballads about whiskey, guns and wild animals having sexual encounters with mountain men—not what you might expect to hear in a packed saloon in Williamsburg on a Tuesday night, but that’s exactly what concert-goers got when The Defibulators and Andy Friedman and the Other Failures hit the stage at Zebulon this summer. Both bands are based in Brooklyn and both bands are living proof as to why the Brooklyn country music scene is not just alive and kickin’ but downright thriving.

Most people would be surprised to hear there’s a blossoming country music scene in Brooklyn, a place more widely recognized for bagels, bridges and brownstones than bluegrass, ballads and back country hoe-downs—but in a place where most people moved from somewhere else, anything is possible, according to Andy Friedman.

“There’s probably a blue male monarch butterfly-collecting scene in this city that’s as big as the Brooklyn Country scene.”

Andy Friedman grew up on Long Island before he moved to Brooklyn at the age of seventeen. He first heard a pedal-steel guitar in a Billy Joel song—The Great Suburban Showdown on Streetlife Serenade, his second album—and was first introduced to country music by exploring the influences of Bob Dylan. It’s in the Dylan tradition of songwriters that Freidman sees the Brooklyn Country scene today.

“To me, the Brooklyn Country scene is a descendent of what was happening here in the late 1950s and 1960s around Washington Square Park and the West Village, or at least I like to think it keeps that spirit (and scene) alive.”

The Defibulators are comprised of musicians from Texas, Wisconsin, California and New Jersey. While they started out as a traditional rockabilly band, they have grown to include elements of bluegrass, honky-tonk, blues and regular ol’ country. They describe themselves as “Hee-haw on mescaline.”

“I moved up here from Texas, to go to school and to get as far away from country music as possible,” said Bug Jennings, the band’s lead singer and banjo player. “I bought my first country music record at Tower Records on 4th St.”

Jennings never heard a Hank Williams song in his eighteen years growing up in Texas and despised what he heard on the radio. He only truly discovered country music for himself when Roadblock, the band’s lead guitarist, lent him a classic country CD after they met working at a restaurant in Manhattan. He now lives in Brooklyn and finds the positive reception his band gets here appropriately refreshing.

“Our following makes sense to me because nobody who lives in Brooklyn’s from Brooklyn. Everybody’s a transplant.”

Metalbelly, The Defibulators’ washboard player who comes from Austin originally and dons flannel red one-piece pajamas to every show, pointed that their band is not a unique phenomenon.

“There’s a lot of country and folk music that originated up here. There are a lot of original bands and a lot of original people that come out of the melting pot that exists up here.”

Andy Friedman and the Other Failures tour all over the country, and their reception doesn’t follow what stereotypical expectations might dictate.

“I would like to say the further south we go, the better the crowd reception gets, but it’s not true. We enjoy terrific crowds in the south, but Minneapolis and Chicago are two of our favorite spots, as well. We love the west coast, and liberal arts colleges like Oberlin, Pitzer College and Warren Wilson.

“The thing about playing in Columbia, South Carolina, though, is that each time we play, someone from the crowd sends us home with a jar of corn liquor. That’s tough to beat. What I do notice down south, however, is that’s where most of the ‘how does a band from Brooklyn end up playing country music’ questions most often come from. I always answer the same way: there are plenty of punk bands playing in Alabama.”

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