Bluegrass in the Big Apple - Blue Week

By Jordan Reisman

A spirited jam at the Monday Night Bluegrass Session at Mona’s Bar in the East Village. Photo courtesy of Rick Snell.

With New York City’s seemingly endless sprawl, traffic congestion, and general aesthetic of “planned nature,” it’s hard to envision it as an environment that breeds music influenced by wide-open fields and a general connection with the outdoors.

The wise Louis CK once argued that New York City is a “giant piece of litter” and it can be hard to argue any differently. But as we’re constantly shown time and time again, there’s really room for most anything–and with that includes genuine bluegrass music. Perhaps it’s the success of bands like Mumford & Sons–plus massive events like Barclay’s Center hosting The Avett Brothers–but it’s clear that there’s a bit of buzz for the banjo, and it would be unwise for that kind of demand to go unaccounted for.

BTR was able to speak with Rick Snell, the organizer of the Monday Night Bluegrass Session at Mona’s Bar in the East Village, about how this mini phenomenon came about.

As a musician with a background in jazz, Snell was no stranger to playing in the city. He wanted to start a bluegrass movement organically without compromising the music. However, he had trouble finding the proper place, because “for a lot of venues the bottom line really comes down to selling beer and things can get really cynical and antagonistic if the venue doesn’t firstly put the highest premium on the music.”

Eventually, David Munelly, the Irish accordionist with whom Snell was touring and playing, took him down to Mona’s for an Irish session. He then began frequenting them on a regular basis.

About three years ago, Snell was jamming during an Irish session. When he put his guitar down, the bar staff approached him about possibly running a Bluegrass night at Mona’s. The first session soon followed.

Though it’s grown to be a small community, the question is, can New York City really sustain a thriving scene when much of the music’s context relates to rural surroundings most here don’t experience?

Despite the lack of front porches and visible stars at night, Rick Snell seems to have hope.

“I think in the minds of many Bluegrass music does have that connection to Southern life, and of course it was born there,” Snell tells BTR.

He continues that the genre has “thrived in so many environments across the country and in other parts of the world that it feels to me like no one culture can really claim to own it. To me it’s really exciting to travel the countrywide and to find friends anywhere by virtue of the fact that I like to play fiddle tunes on an old Martin guitar.”

As for New York, Snell forecasts the city will continue to be home for bluegrass for years to come, as its roots are strong.

The scene right now is small and insular, made up of “younger players and a younger audience,” as it seems like every youthful axe man is hitting up their local craftsman for a handmade banjo. Local bluegrass musicians play at Mona’s on Mondays, but the bar attracts national touring acts as well, where they’ll stop by for a late session after a headlining gig (though Snell was reticent to namedrop). Snell acts as the New York bluegrass liaison for the “national guys,” acclimating them to the sometimes harsh urban landscape.

“At this point there’s an ongoing dialogue between the bluegrass musicians in New York and all the great players from other parts of the country,” says Snell. “New York is more and more becoming a place for national guys to come and play. We know all the good coffee spots so naturally we act as a kind of filter to help the wayfaring fiddler or banjoist wade through the urban noise.”

As for the future of bluegrass in NYC, Snell says he’d really like to see a “proper NYC Bluegrass Festival” since so many New York musicians travel elsewhere to play big-name festivals.

However, he describes Mona’s as a welcoming refuge for the whole scene, offering musicians “a fun hang to check in with when you’re not on tour.” While Rick Snell is positive about having New York City as the homebase for his prospects with bluegrass, he still acknowledges that the city changes rapidly and can really never stay the same.

Whatever direction the genre is headed may be unclear, but for now, we can depend on Mona’s to host some genuine, honest bluegrass music down in the Village.

“I don’t think you ever find one single hub for bluegrass music,” says Snell. “There are just so many gifted players from every walk of life coming from every corner of this country.”

Snell reasons that it’s impossible to have one city big enough for it all–but that’s fundamental to the beauty of music.

“Every community sings it and plays in their own way. But that having been said there are big destination points on the map and New York is absolutely one of those and becoming more and more so with each passing year. It’s an exciting time to play bluegrass in New York City.”