How’s this? I’ll drop by Hank’s today.
Bori Kogan interviews Wrong Way Sean of Sean Kershaw and the New Jack Ramblers and the Blind Pharaohs
B: When did you guys form up as a band?
WWS: At Hank’s Saloon… I started that place, I walked in there and told the owner, Dave, “hey, you need to have bands in there, I’d like to put my band here every Sunday night.” ‘Cause there were, like, you know, four old dudes and one old lady sitting in there watching TV and drinking Schaffer draft- like, this place would be PERFECT. Everything’s all set up, it’s perfect, all you gotta do is just put a band in there.
B: Yeah, I mean, it’s Hank’s Saloon, right.
WWS: Yeah, and it had been the Do Ray Tavern before, and what happened was, the place switched owners, and they turned it into Hank’s Saloon, with big flames on the side and all that. I saw and said to myself, “I bet that’s a country bar,” and walked in, and sure enough it was, with David Allen Coe and Waylon Jennings or something like that on the jukebox. So I told them, I’d like to put my band there on Sunday nights, with everything just the way it was, with the barbecue. So I started with the Blind Pharaohs there. and we did a couple of trial runs in late 2000 and then starting in January 2001 it was the Blind Pharaohs every Sunday night. And that was pretty cool. And we did it like this: we did one set, then have a guest band, friends of ours, other rockabilly bands or other punk bands, and then we’d do a final set, so we’d do two bookend sets… It was getting better and better and better, the summer was really cool, and then it just died after 9/11. The guys were getting depressed, and they couldn’t keep playing every Sunday, and I said, “hey, you know what, I’ll just do it by myself.” I was just gonna literally run it as an M.C., play a couple of solo songs on the guitar, and play music and book bands and just literally make it my night, have a few drinks and go home. Guys started showing up, Gerald the pedal steel player showed up, like “hey man, can I sit in with you?”, our guitar player showed up, he was like “whoa, man, I’ll sit in with you on a couple songs,” Mark the drummer showed up, pretty soon we had a whole band there and it became like a whole new thing, with a whole new band, and it was very spontaneous.
B:... It organically turned into a band?
WWS: Exactly, that’s exactly what happened. And sometimes it’s down to as low as four members and sometimes as high as nine members. But the core band is there and it’s bigger and better than it ever was, and we got a pretty good crowd in there and still got the barbecue going...
B: It’s the only place in the city I know of where you can go and hear live country music...
WWS: There are other places. I’m gonna say this, no bullshit, though, it’s the only place that’s like a honkytonk in New York City where people are getting down, where chicks are dancing, the grill’s going and the beer’s flowing, everybody’s having a good time, the band plays till the fucking... till everybody drops, that’s Hank’s Saloon, that’s the only place where shit like that goes on in New York City.
B: So how’d you get into country music? I mean, I got into it through the army.
WWS: Is that right?
B: Yeah, it was like twelve weeks of music deprivation, and then one of the drills put on some country... which sounded like the best music in the world at that time. And then I got out and started listening to the Reverend Horton Heat-
WWS:-Yeah, I’ve been into Horton Heat for a long time-and that’s the thing, I’m like and old punk rocker, and honest to god, it’s not just me, a lot of punk rockers have went down this road, they either started playing country or rockabilly. And when I started the Blind Pharaohs, we were not straight rockabilly... I call it more ‘country punk’. And the New Jack Ramblers, that is like straight honkytonk. We do trucker tunes, we do bluegrass songs, it’s honkytonk. Yeah, man, it’s this whole process, even when I was into hardcore and stuff, I was also into Cramps and the Gun Club and liked Johnny Cash... and I always liked Dolly Parton. Not even that I liked her music too much at the time, but I always liked her attitude, thought it was the coolest thing.
You know, I always lived on farms and stuff, but ironically, when I was living on a farm, I was listening to hardcore. My high school was surrounded by cornfields. It was hell, man, so I got into punk rock. And ever since I’ve been in the city, I turned on David Allen Coe and started hanging out at the Lismar Lounge and the old Village Idiot... so yeah, it was a path from punk to rockabilly to... I mean, I DJ’d last night and played everybody from Hank Williams to the Misfits. I’m into a lot of different kinds of music, at home I put on a lot of country music, a lot of bluegrass. I’ve been writing a lot of country songs.
B: So in your lineup, you play guitar...
WWS:... Yeah, I play rhythm guitar. My guitar, you see the scribble in the corner of it? That guitar was signed by Willie Nelson. And I sing. I’m the main singer ninety percent of the time. Izzy Aidman (from Washington Heights) there off to my left plays mandolin, he sings mostly backup and he sings lead on a bunch of tunes.
B: He’s the guy who sings “Sitting on Top of the World,” right?
B: That was really good. I like Muddy Waters in general but that’s a really good song.
WWS: He’s into the bluegrass tradition. He’s a great musician in his own right. And Charlie (Florida) off on my right side plays lead guitar, he plays his Telecaster. On the drums there’s Mark, we’ve been playing together for a while (both from Maryland). And Gerald (Ohio) on pedal steel guitar. He’s awesome. He’s a real good guitar player. He’s in a couple different bands here in the city too; and our bass player, Rob Novick, he’s originally from Brooklyn...
B: What made you come to New York City originally?
WWS: Well, I lived here in ‘88. ‘89. I hitchhiked all over the country. I lived in New Orleans, and I lived in Texas... in Seattle and Portland, Oregon for a while, hitchhiked and hopped trains for a while-
WWS:-Yeah, with six-month intervals in between.
B: You actually did the whole hobo thing?
WWS: Yeah, yeah.
B: You know, I never really thought that still went on. On boxcars and shit, or what?
WWS: Yeah, well, you can do boxcars. Actually, the grain cars are the better ones to use now. You’ve got the grain cars now, the ones that look like this (gesturing)-
B:-Like a big anvil
WWS:-Yeah. And there’s American grainers and Canadian grainers. The Canadian grainers have this platform you can sit on and they have this cubbyhole you can hide in. So you’ve got shelter and a hiding spot and a place to sit. Whereas a boxcar, if a door slams shut, you’re stuck in there till somebody lets you out.
B: That ever happen to you?
WWS: Well, if you ever go into a boxcar, you jam something in the door to make sure it doesn’t slam shut. But then what happens is, if the railroad bulls show up, you’re just sitting there. You’re sitting in this big, empty boxcar. They’re like coming in with they’re flashlights, they’re like, “Hey. You. Come here.”
B: Those guys pretty rough when they catch you?
WWS: I never got caught. Once I was hidden in a Canadian grainer, me and my dog, holding the dog’s mouth shut, and the bulls were outside with their dogs and flashlights, and they never smelled us. I was literally curled into the fetal position in this little cubbyhole with a guitar and a duffel bag and this little dog, holding her mouth shut for forty five minutes or an hour, I couldn’t tell, it was pitch black in there. Eventually they went away and the train started rolling and that was that.
B: How did you know where the trains were going?
WWS: You never really know. But if you’re sitting in Fort Worth and the trains are going in a certain direction, they’re probably going to El Paso. And you can ask the brakeman. Some of the brakemen are cool and they’ll give you good directions, tell you when the train leaves, like “yeah, you meet this train at 8:55 and it’ll take you straight to El Paso,” or “it’ll take you straight to San Antonio,” other ones will fuck with you and they’ll give you bad directions and they’ll point you straight the bulls’ way. But I had a buddy of mine, for instance, who got on a train I missed. I was trying to get on but it was moving, and I had too much shit on, my guitar, my dog and my fucking bag. Well, it pulled up in some fucking gravel quarry in the middle of the desert in Texas, they cut the cars loose. He almost died of exposure and thirst and shit, he had to walk like thirty miles to the nearest town. There’s also the Railroad Riders of America, then there’s some people there that’ll fuck you up, rob you or just kill you or whatever. But in general, most of the people are cool. And there’s a lot of crusty gutter punks that do it, old hippies and Vietnam vets and this, that and the other, wetbacks, people from Mexico and South America. There’s whole different crews of people out there.
B: What’s the craziest thing that ever happened to you out there?
WWS: The craziest thing, honest to god, was in El Paso. First of all, the word from all of the tramps was that you can’t hop on from El Paso, you can’t get out of the yard, the actual railyard. You gotta go seven miles down the road where the train’s gotta go around this one bend and slow down to like five, ten miles an hour, and that’s where you have to get on. Cause the bulls are too hardcore in EL Paso. I mean, they’ve got a fence, then another fence, and a fucking moat. Cause in El Paso you’ve got all the illegal aliens trying to ride over on the train, so the security’s really tight there. Well, I just had too much shit, man. I was new to it, and I brought, like I said, my whole duffel bag, and a guitar, and my little dog... it was about as much as I could carry in two arms. It was hard for me to get on the train. I had to throw my shit on the train, throw the dog on the train and get on myself. It’s a challenge, and people get chewed up under the wheels sometimes. You slip and fall, that’s it, that shit’ll slice you in half. So anyway, make a long story short, I wasn’t walking no seven miles. So I found a hole in the fence, scoped the whole place out, found out how to get back into the yard, went back outside and slept in my sleeping bag. And I was next to a big pile of pallets. And I had a dream that night about fire, and when I woke up, lo and behold, next to me, the whole twenty foot stack of pallets was blazing. I mean, fucking burning. So I grab all my shit and my dog, and ran about fifty yards down the road, just ran for a while. I mean, the shit was like right there, right where this wall is, there was fire coming out of where those antlers are (pointing at the little demon statue in the corner right above him.) And as I’m standing there, the fire department comes, some dude comes out of his house and is standing there, like “what happened?” I’m like, “don’t ask me, dude, you live here.” And I hear a unit, a locomotive starting up. It was pointed to Tucson, which was where I was going. So I grabbed all my shit and the dog, find myself a Canadian Grainer on that train, and I crawled into the hole. And the train didn’t go anywhere for a while, I poked out to see them putting out the fire, it burned big but it didn’t burn very long. That’s when, like I told you, the railroad bulls came out with the flashlights and the dogs. After a while they went away, and the train pulled out. By the time it was light, I was in the fucking high desert, and I swear to god, I was FILTHY by this time, I mean, filthy fucking dirty. I took off all my clothes and I spread myself out on this platform buck naked just to air myself out, all the sweat and grease. And it was spectacular... I mean, desert on the highways, it’s empty and desolate but there’s other cars, but when you’re on a train, you’re in the middle of nowhere. NOTHING. It’s so desolate. And so high, it’s like you’re up on a mountain looking down where there’s a tiny little river... you can tell water goes through there once or twice a year and just carves a canyon, an arroyo. And you’re going over the big railroad tracks looking down, and it’s so beautiful. It’s pretty wild, it’s pretty cool.
B: So of all the places you’ve been in America, what’s your favorite place?
WWS: Honest to god? New York City. I’ve heard so much goddamn country music here... I’ve gotta say, I’m fond of North Carolina, Virginia and that whole area, ‘cause that’s where the Blind Pharaohs go to play, and a lot of people go there and stuff, I’m fond of that area, but I’m so goddamn addicted to being able to go out at five o’clock in the morning and get a six-pack, or a fucking bag of cookies or whatever the fuck-
B:-And not have to drive to the gas station five miles from your house-
WWS: -Yeah, you know? And I live in the ghetto, there’s like gunfire outside my house-
WWS: By the navy yard in Brooklyn. And I can walk five, seven minutes down the road and get shit twenty-four hours. It’s addictive. Up in Virginia, up in the woods, moonshine and the whole nine yards, so I enjoy that too, but I like living here.
B: That’s pretty much all I got, unless you have something edifying to say.
WWS: The New Jack Ramblers... uhm... we’re the shit.
B: All right.
What People are saying:
“...you would be ill-advised to miss so much as one performance of Sean Kershaw & the New Jack Ramblers; something always happens, the music's always great, and even folks who don't really like country music are diggin' it...and slowly being sucked into the alcohol-soaked vortex inhabited by Hank Williams, George Jones, and (your name here).
Every Sunday-Sunday-Sunday at Hank's Saloon-loon-loon! 46 3rd Ave @ Atlantic Ave Brooklyn USA; 9pm-whenever, No Cover, Free BBQ, Cheep Beer! www.hankstavern.com& don’t forget your FREE BBQ!!”