Attending a hootenanny hosted by the Westchester Bluegrass Club might just be the ultimate I-can’t-believe-this-is-Westchester experience. At a lakeside social center in Purdys, local, regional, and touring bluegrass bands typically feature banjos, mandolins, and hard-edged harmonies.
Concertgoers bring food, and after the headliner’s final note, folks pull out their instruments and jam. Sometimes, Michael Burns, the group’s guiding light, invites everyone on the club’s email list to his house nearby for “a little swimming and picking” around the pool. “We’re a big family,” says Burns, who performs at local venues and has booked bluegrass and roots music concerts in the north-county hills for 25 years.
Also surprising, the Bluegrass Series at the Emelin Theatre in Mamaroneck turns 40 this year. From 2016 to 2020, the Nashville-based International Bluegrass Music Association nominated the series for its Event of the Year award. Many smaller venues that host bluegrass bands offer table service, which can be distracting. The Emelin is an auditorium, and the musicians appreciate the rapt audience.
“People come there to hear the music,” says Greg Cahill, banjo picker for Special Consensus, an international touring band that has headlined the Emelin several times. “They’re unusually supportive and responsive.” The specter of COVID still stalks the live music scene, although Croton-on-Hudson-based bluegrass band Big Draw plays on occasion at Factoria, Peekskill Brewery, and private events. They also performed in Purdys earlier this year.
The group pulls its revolving lineup from alums of the early-2000s country-and-bluegrass scene in Brooklyn who moved up north. Big Draw’s singer and guitarist, Brad Einhorn (a former member of The Cobble Hillbillies band), built a stage in his backyard.
Regular open jams — communal gatherings where any musician who attends can lead at least one song, regardless of skill level — also dried up in Westchester. But singer/bass player Trevor Hochman of New Rochelle, a mainstay at New York City events, makes his own scene by holding “excursion jams” in local parks and even at a haunted house.
“Bluegrass is a collective style where you can learn without any pressure,” Hochman says. “Once you get bit, it’s in your blood.”