Greg Garing’s Alphabet City Opry – 9C (New York City, NY)
Greg Garing’s otherworldly voice nearly overtakes his bone-thin luminosity, soaring sweet and achingly powerful, then dipping in a hushed outcast cry. “Blues In My Heart” perfectly collapses any resistance to hillbilly music. When “old-timer” Ward Verity joins at the single mike, the high, tender bluegrass and honky-tonk harmonies cry out in the wilderness of 9C to melt the souls of the dedicated and the hip who mash into the tiny bar on this Monday night in Manhattan.
After touring to support his 1997 debut disc Alone, Garing, a former Nashvillian, has been hunkering down here most every Monday with bluegrass and honky-tonk musicians of diverse ages and backgrounds. Tagged “Greg Garing’s Alphabet City Opry”, the evenings draw the likes of John Herald, leader of the legendary Greenbriar Boys, who drives 100 miles from Woodstock. Verity leaves his mother at the home they share on Long Island and 30 years of retirement for each week’s Opry. The scene attracts spectators ranging from bluegrass fiddler Bob Green to eclectic rockers David Byrne, Moby, the Chrome Cranks and Speedball Baby.
Herald and Verity join Garing for bluegrass harmonies at the mike, then stand back as band members step up for solo turns: Joel Watstein on banjo, Sheriff Uncle Bob on dobro, Scooter on bass, Miss Diane on fiddle and the extraordinary Trip Henderson on harmonica. Classics such as Jimmy Martin’s “Hit Parade Of Love” and Red Allen & the Osborne Brothers’ “Once More” beat visions of the hunger outside.
Former Helmet bassist Henry Bogdon waits until the honky-tonk set before adding his searing command of vintage steel guitar. Expanding the band for the honky-tonkin’, Liz Tormes keeps time on guitar and Steve Antonakos quietly strums electric guitar. Garing jumps, stomps and picks out rousing solos on his worn acoustic. “Loose Talk” and Hank Williams’ “My Bucket’s Got a Hole in It” and “I Can’t Get You Off of My Mind” are highlights.
Does the host make any money at these shows? “No”, Garing says; it’s pass the hat and “more about me helping my friends.”
Verity has lent Garing a scrapbook of photos and momentos from the late ’50s. In it are black-and-white snapshots of Bill Monroe and his boys all crowded around a single mike, of the Stanley Brothers, Louvin Brothers, Wilma Lee and Stoney Cooper, the Greenbriar Boys. As fate would have it, Verity’s scrapbook chronicles Garing’s inspirations. Garing first gained attention in Nashville playing fiddle, mandolin and singing with Jimmy Martin, Roy Duke, Bill Monroe, the Greenbriar Boys and, after Stoney died, traveling the mountains with Wilma Lee.
Moving to New York has been “totally refreshing,” Garing says. “It’s not a scene in the sense of a bunch of hot bands, it’s a scene in the sense of the hundreds of people playing traditional music in New York City right now….You run around midtown and there’ll be signs written out crudely in the window of the bars: ‘Country Music Jukebox.’ I don’t know what kind of country music it is, but it’s a good sign, nevertheless.”