Just off Bethpage Drive, right along the railroad tracks, is Hicksville’s A-Room Studio. Driving up to this unassuming building, one would have next to no idea what awaits through the heavy metal doors. The studio has serviced local bands for over 25 years, and features some of the largest rehearsal rooms across Long Island. As they proudly proclaim, “Music is our passion. Music is what we know, do, and love.” On Sunday, Jan. 8, this passion was heard loudly and clearly. Pouring from within was something rhythmic, energetic, and harmonized. It was bluegrass.
The Bluegrass Club of Long Island is the result of over 45 years of passion, dedication and community. Players come from all walks of life and have varying skill levels. “I was a non-player, in my 30’s. Loved the music… But I had cotton in my own ears, that’s how beginner I was at violin!” said John Chainey, the self-proclaimed “mouth” of the Bluegrass Club, about his early instrumental experience.
Around the age of 40, Chainey decided to change the course of his life. “I told my friends I was getting serious with my life. Quit my job and said I’m going to fiddle college!” Chainey moved to Texas, where he completely immersed himself for over two years. When he came back, he was surprised to find a plethora of bluegrass groups had cropped up along Long Island. “When I came back, there were bluegrass clubs everywhere! It’s insidious,” he joked.
Chainey has now been involved with the Bluegrass Club of Long Island for over 30 years and continues to encourage others to pursue their interests. “It’s a passion, you know? I’m in my 70’s and I’m always preaching passion. I don’t care how old you are; to have something that you can wake up to and be excited about is a big thing.”
He’s not the only one whose life took an unexpected turn. Heidi Greene was studying to become an EMT when she first heard the call of bluegrass. “I actually was studying to be an EMT, and I heard these guys in a bar. I thought it was St. Patrick’s Day music, but they came out for a drink and I realized it was live. I ended up following them after my classes, and they asked me to sing a few songs. Next thing I know, I’ve got a mandolin, and here we are.” Greene did not have any prior experience as a musician in the genre. She has been with the Bluegrass Club for over a decade now, and recalls her novice days fondly. “They’re very welcoming to any new people. Everybody’s willing to share what they have, what they know.”
Gary Schoenberger came from a rock-and-roll and folk music background. He decided to explore bluegrass on a whim. “Maybe 20 years ago, I heard about this bluegrass jam that was around the corner from where I lived, I could literally walk there.” Curiosity peaked, he decided to check the scene out. “I knew nothing about bluegrass music – I didn’t even bring a guitar, because I didn’t know what the story was, and I listened. And then the second time I brought my guitar, and I learned one song after another. Until now I know like a hundred songs.” Schoenberger really appreciates the performance aspect of bluegrass, which he feels has a different energy to it than folk. “It’s great because it’s one of the few genres where you can have a jam where everyone plays simultaneously. In folk music, you get one solo performer doing their original song, looking at their shoes… it’s not usually a very exciting performance. Whereas this is a lot of fun.”
Part of what makes the bluegrass jams so special is the switching off of lead solos. According to Bill Ayasse, “We have a couple of people that like to sing a lot of songs, and they’ll trade off singing… If it’s in the style of country or bluegrass, pretty much anybody can play them. We figure it out on the spot sometimes, basically… There’s really no rules to it, as long as you learn the style and the songs.” However, don’t let this loose energy fool you into thinking the players aren’t taking it seriously. Chainey noted, “When we do jam, there is a sense of performance. Because even when we’re jamming, we want to do well, we want it to be tight.”
The club normally meets in Smithtown, but an unavailability of their meeting spot led them westward to Nassau County. Ayasse was appreciative of the jam space. “We weren’t able to do this in our usual location in Smithtown… One of our members offered to pay for [The A-Room] and we were able to meet up this month.” The studio certainly had a lot to accommodate, with many members of the Bluegrass Club toting a variety of instruments. Studio room 3 was packed with guitars, mandolins, banjos, violins, and even a bass fiddle. The center stage hosted a cluster of eager players dancing and moving to the rhythm.
Still, Ayasse said this was a small gathering compared to other events the club has hosted. “We have concerts where we’ll get a lot more people out… We haven’t done it in a while because of Covid, but we would have the jam, and then after the jam we’d have a concert with either a local name or someone who was on tour.” These concerts have included the likes of Michael Compton, Joe Newberry, and Andy Statman. Still, large or small in gathering, the Bluegrass Club maintains their mantra of “Pick a jam, pick a key, go for it!”