Behind a plain facade on a quiet block in Manhattan’s East Village is the unassuming hub of the New York City bluegrass scene — Mona’s Bar. More or less equidistant between the Alphabet City housing projects and the rock clubs and poetry cafés surrounding Tompkins Square Park and the Lower East Side, Mona’s occupies a space between worlds. Equal parts punk-era dive bar and neighborhood weirdo artist hang-out, it’s off the radar just enough to attract music fans looking for the real thing away from the high-priced and uptight venues which clutter the cultural landscape in NYC.
“There’s definitely a real kind of magic here. Maybe there’s a UFO buried in the foundation,” jokes guitarist and singer Rick Snell. A veteran sideman and session musician, he’s been the host of the Monday Night Bluegrass Session here since it started over five years ago. What began as a late-night hang for the professional musicians in town looking to wind down and pick a few tunes after their gigs has blossomed into the de facto center of the scene for bluegrass, old-time string music, and old-school country in NYC.
“Word got around some time ago that this was a chill place to hang and pick, get a beer, meet some really interesting people,” says Snell. “We’ve been very lucky to have so many great players pass through the doors over the years.” These days, the Session often features local names alongside some of the best-known players in traditional music — members of Punch Brothers, Yonder Mountain String Band, Kentucky Thunder, and others have all passed through the doors, at one time or another. The current weekly house band includes fiddler Duncan Wickel and Jeff Austin Band bassist Max Johnson.
We asked Snell to make a playlist of some favorites that have spent some time here in years past.
Della Mae — “Good Blood”
I first became a fan of Della Mae at the GreyFox Bluegrass Festival in upstate New York. These gals definitely know how to keep the dance tent going ’til way past curfew. We’ve had Jenni Lyn and Zoe on the gig a few times; they’re absolutely top-notch players.
Mike Barnett — “It’ll Be Alright”
Mike was a mainstay in his time in New York, but when Ricky Skaggs calls, it’s time to pack your bags and move to Nashville. He sounds right at home in Kentucky Thunder. Here’s Mike singing with one of our favorite vocalists in New York — I’m with Her’s Aoife O’Donovan.
Lake Street Dive — “Mistakes”
They’re so fun! It’s almost an afterthought to mention how deep Lake Street is tapped into American roots music. We’ve been big fans of these guys and gals for years. Any time we’ve gotten a bass in Bridget Kearney’s hands at Mona’s, it’s just been some of the heaviest groove playing you’re ever going to hear.
Lonesome Trio — Appalachia Apologia
These guys really have a special place in my heart. Jake, Ed, and Ian are great writers and pickers in their own rights, but there is something really special about their chemistry which shows their life-long musical friendship. I’ve always loved this witty little tune.
Six Deadly Venoms — “Where the Soul of Man Never Dies”
I wanted to shamelessly include the Venoms — I’m their guitarist and singer on this track — because the Mona’s Session was originally built around the musicians in this group, and these guys served as the house band for the first few years. Again, there is something in the music here which only happens as a result of the real love and friendship we have.
Steep Canyon Rangers — “Looking Glass”
These guys have an amazing story: a band of killer North Carolina pickers meets Steve Martin at a party, gets asked to be his backing band, wins a Grammy, changes the world, etc. No big deal. Nicky Sanders has been a good friend to the Session over the years, and we’ve been lucky to pick with him a bunch at Mona’s. Some great fiddling on this track.
10 String Symphony — “Mad Girl’s Love Song”
While it is tempting to get lost in the technical beauty of their singing, their unique sense of harmony, and their musical instincts which seem so in tune even down to the smallest levels, at the end of the day, their songs are just so damn moving. We love Rachel and Christian.
Matt Flinner Trio — “Head Smashed in Buffalo Jump”
Matt came through when he was producing an album in town. Matt’s just one of the most interesting and prolific composers on the scene, and his trio’s music du jour project is really cool. Also, we’re super fans of Ross Martin who is a founding member of the trio and just one of the best guitar players anywhere.
Jacob Jolliff: “Hopped the Trash Car” (not on Spotify)
Jake’s awesome technical abilities are usually the first thing anyone notices in his playing, but there’s really something unique in his ideas and his vision which I consider his strongest suit. Here’s a guy to watch in the coming years; we’ve already seen great things from him both in Yonder Mountain String Band and his own project. And I expect much more amazing music in the future.
Photo credit: Aidan Grant