I admit I know very little about country music.  Growing up in Philadelphia, I was not exposed to much from this genre until my early teen years, and even then, I was so wrapped up in my world of Led Zeppelin and Backstreet Boys that it would take a lot for me to give something new a listen.  Pop and Classic Rock were all I knew.  At age 14, I heard my first Hank Williams song, “Hey, Good Lookin’”.  Before I moved to NYC, it was a favorite to listen to while driving as I screamed the catchy words at the top of my lungs in my beat-up Cherokee Sport.

Fast forward 15 years and many deep explorations of other bands, genres, and instruments, I’ve found myself back to seeing a band that reminds me of why I will always accept your invitation to “hear my band play.”  The first time I saw I’ll Be John Brown, I had no idea what I was getting into.  Gathered in a crowded motorcycle shop in Brooklyn, I heard some stirring country music that made me shake my money maker.

The hard thing about country music is if you aren’t familiar (like me), much of it initially sounds like the Blues.  My gage and amateur judgment ranges from calling it “generic country shuffle that I’ve heard a thousand times” to “music I can drink bourbon to and get my shake on.”  I’ll Be John Brown fits into the latter category in spades.  These guys are performers and made me understand and welcome a totally new term: Brooklyn Country.

Like many New York bands, their evolution since their 2005 formation is an awesome overlapping of genres and friends.  Jason Gambrell (Acoustic guitar, harmonica, vocals) bonded over PBR and a new love for Waylon Jennings with Jason Holt (bass, vocals) and Jason’s roommate Alistair. Gambrell attributes his and Holt’s “almost telepathic rhythmic connection” to those days of exploring country music together.

What began as a three-piece band that would play for crowds gathered outside their open window on Avenue C in Manhattan is now a five-piece whirlwind made up of Gambrell, Holt, Dante Soriano on 6-string electric guitar, Shoheen Owhady on keys, and Craig Stauber on drums.  I’ll Be John Brown is a prime example of NYC musical circles blending to form something new and energetic.  Each member has different musical backgrounds and interests but have a common goal to stay “true to the energy and sound of those early days,” Gambrell said.

While all have bonded over a love of Allman Brothers, The Band, and CCR, they have mixed influences into their sound that span much earlier decades alike to Jimmie Rodgers, Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash.  There are hints of folk, bluegrass, southern rock, and grit in each song.  With Gambrell being the primary song-writer to date, each member actively contributes to the arrangement of each song.  As a country music novice, I found myself nodding in agreement as Gambrell explained how important it was to avoid cliché country lyrics about dead dogs, farm animals, and boozing away a marriage.  “I mean, certainly being heartbroken, confused, hurt, and down-and-out are subjects that come up in my lyrics…I write from the perspective of someone who grew up in the south and knows that world and culture, but is very happy and comfortable being in New York City.” Their lyrics are as organic as their arrangements.  While dancing and moving to the music, I, and the many others at their shows, feel connected.  First benchmark met: Getting my shake on!

Of course while talking with the band, I had to ask about the name.  Gambrell explains that his Mississippi born-and-bread grandmother used the phrase “I’ll Be John Brown” instead of “I’ll be damned.” The name is based on connection to family and with the way these five play together, they have formed a rowdy family of their own.

The band plays almost every other week, usually in Brooklyn or Manhattan, and is gearing up for one of their biggest shows ever; a festival slot at Equifunk Music Festival.  They have so much energy and enthusiasm for this opportunity.  While having a solid line-up of funk acts on the bill, Equifunk has made room to include electronic, and yes, country artists.  “We are lucky to be a part of it…this is the kind of festival we’d attend even if we weren’t on the bill.” Their goal is simple; show the crowd a good time. I am confident they will.

I’ll Be John Brown has a blend of so many styles; any music fan will have fun at their show.  Every member of this band contributes a charm that makes me excited to hear a solo just as much as the well-rehearsed harmonies. They continuously tweak their live performances to ensure that if you’re a country fan or a random person walking in off the street, you will see a quality show.  Second benchmark met: Another bourbon, please!

-Sam Rosenberg

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