At the end of True Grit, behind the credits, the amazing American folksinger/songwriter Iris Dement sings a nineteenth-century hymn called "Leaning on the Everlasting Arms." Her voice, always plaintive, seems particularly intense here. The Coens love that kind of ur-American sound -- that's why they made O Brother Where Art Thou?
So many of my friends who have seen True Grit and who saw O Brother have commented on how much they liked this music. (O Brother's soundtrack won a Grammy for Best Album of the Year.) And yet New Yorkers seldom seek it out. There's no country-music station here, and very little in the way of Americana on the radio or in the music venues.
When the Country Music Association Awards were held in Madison Square Garden a few years ago, the city seemed utterly oblivious to them, as it would to a plumber's convention. Every now and then Alison Krauss comes through, or Emmylou Harris, and the Highline Ballroom occasionally books a bluegrass act, like Cherryholmes.
A few weeks ago, Ricky Skaggs was at B.B. King. But there's no real culture of or welcome for roots music or Americana here -- as there used to be in the forties and fifties and sixties, when Greenwich Village played host to many such acts, from Seeger to Dylan to Baez to Ochs to Leadbelly to the New Lost City Ramblers. For a nostalgist like me, that's a shame.
And that's why it was such an atypical pleasure to see a bluegrass band called the Grascals at the Highline Ballroom last Sunday. They are terrific, and took me by surprise. Their musicianship is superb, they've won a lot of awards, and they're relaxed and funny. The close harmonies would peel your socks off. There were only about 35 people in the audience -- I found myself feeling embarrassed for New York -- but we were all extremely enthusiastic.
The cultural chasm that may keep this kind of performance from being more popular here these days opened only once -- but widely -- during the show. The group was about to sing a fallen-hero Gulf War buddy song called "Me and John and Paul," a song that crossed over into mainstream popularity. The lead singer, Jamie Johnson, who plays a left-handed guitar -- which would give you horizontal vertigo if you looked at it too long -- asked, "I'd ask anyone in the audience who has served our country to please raise your hand." No hands were raised. This was New York, and a certain kind of decisively non-military audience. An uncomfortable silence prevailed for a few seconds, until Mr. Johnson broke the tension and saved the moment by saying, "OK, any of y'all got cousins who served this country?"
It's my guess that he asks that question every time the band performs, and that New York is one of the few places, if not the only place, where no hands have been raised.