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BY JANEL BLADOW | Foot-stomping hill music of the Deep South feels right at home in the South Street Seaport.
What started as a clever way to draw in some customers on usually quiet Monday nights has now turned into a cultural phenomenon and made the Cowgirl Seahorse (Front and Dover Sts.) the urban spot for hillbilly hoedowns.
Nearly a year ago, Cowgirl owner Sherry Delamarter approached her husband Bob Holmes with an idea — how about getting some of your musician friends together and come play music at the pub Mondays? He bit and the rest is, as they say, history. It was the birth of his latest band, The Crusty Gentlemen, and the beginning of a bluegrass music movement in Manhattan.
Bands started coming out of the woodwork, wanting to play the club. Groups such as Idiot Brigade, The Pens, Little Embers, let loose. Musicians come with their fiddles, guitars — even a stand up bass — to jam, sing and generally have a raucous good time. Celebrities in pop in from time to time, Dominic Chianese (Uncle Junior of “The Sopranos”) and even musician Jeff Tuohy (who once worked at the bar).
“We’ve become a magnet for bluegrass,” says Gail Courtney, the music coordinator. “People drift in and we have a hillbilly jam. Now I have people call and want to play here.”
“We didn’t intend to create a niche, it evolved that way,” adds Seahorse manager Maura Kilgore. “We like to keep other things in the mix but we are being embraced as the Downtown hub of bluegrass.”
“I really owe it all to my wife,” mandolin player Bob Holmes says of his latest incarnation as founding member of The Crusty Gentlemen. “It was her idea. I’d been playing bluegrass music with friends for years. She invited us down to Seahorse and the band was born.”
Along with Holmes, Jeffrey Friedberg, Doug Allen, Jonathan Gregg and Roger Moley make up The Crusty Gentlemen. Some of them have been playing together since college. Fellow Rhode Island School of Design grad Doug Allen and Holmes had a successful and Grammy-winning run with their New Wave band Rubber Rodeo. “When we were on the road traveling to gigs in the 70’s and 80’s playing rock and New Wave music, we played bluegrass for fun.”
Back then, he says, bluegrass appealed to hippies and Grateful Dead fans. Today, he reckons, the success of the movie “Brother, Where Art Thou,” opened to genre to a whole new group of enthusiasts.
“It’s just fun music, feel-good music. Just about anyone can sing along,” he says.
The music’s appeal has grown over the last few months so much that Cowgirl Seahorse is one of the sponsors of the first annual MMNY Porch Stomp on Governors Island Saturday, June 21 (1 – 5 p.m.). More than 30 bands will be there to “holler up a storm.” It also features jams and workshops from bluegrass to old-time folk and everyone is encouraged to sing along on at this island hootenanny.
Many of the bands that have played Seahorse will be there, including Fausto Bozza and Fiddlin’ Damian Boucher, and others such as Kings County Ramblers and Feral Foster. And, of course, The Crustys, will croon.
“It’s really the spirit of the music that is its appeal,” says Courtney. “With all these bands we see high energy and community, a sense of team. They really respect one another.”