Q&A: Betsy Plum on The Old Time Jam at Lowlands Bar in Gowanus

The Old Time Jam at Lowlands in Gowanus, Brooklyn

Gowanus, Brooklyn is more known for its polluted canal, mafia-related body dumping and the saddest dolphin ever than the changes the neighborhood has seen in the last few years. Eleven years ago when I moved to Park Slope I wouldn’t have even considered crossing through it to get to Carroll Gardens, but now the neighborhood is home to two of the best music venues in New York (The Bell House and Littlefield), some damn fine dive bars, a couple nice bars, some amazing restaurants, a number of musicians and my favorite jam night. The Old Time Jam at Lowlands Bar (543 3rd Ave at 14th St) has become the staple of my Monday nights. You can find Banjo and me hanging out in the back most Mondays of this jam that is attended by some of the biggest names in the NYC bluegrass scene and has caught the attention of The New York Times and NPR’s Bob Boilen.

On Monday, December 30th, 2013, grass clippings and our friends at The Bluegrass Situation are helping the jam’s founders close the year out right with heaps of BBQ, whiskey and blurred memories. You’re all invited and to make sure you don’t show up looking clueless, we chatted up the jam’s co-founder, Betsy Plum of The Calamity Janes, so you could get the backstory on this hootenanny. Here’s what she said…

gcb: How’d this whole thing come about? 

Betsy Plum: Was it Gandhi who said “be the change you want to see in the world”? … We wanted to see a great jam in Brooklyn and we made it happen.

Betsy Plum & her banjo-uke
Betsy Plum & her banjo-uke

But, in all seriousness, Kristin Andreassen, Stephie Coleman, Aoife O’Donovan, and I all moved to Gowanus around the same time a few years back. The idea of a jam close to home got bounced around a few times, especially since right around this time there was a bit of a drought in old time sessions around NYC.  Idle chit-chat became a reality after Lowlands opened in mid-2010. We loved the bar from day one and it quickly became the Gowanus “Cheers” … “where everybody knows your name.” When we mentioned the idea of a regular jam session to the owners and bartenders (including the wonderful Jake who still serves our hoards every Monday night), they were extremely receptive. So, since that fateful day in October 2010, we’ve been there most Monday nights with longtime Gowanus locals and transplants alike, plucking away with many thanks to our patrons at Lowlands. And, while I certainly don’t want this answer to digress into a discussion on gentrification, I’d like to add that we laid our roots at Lowlands and in Gowanus before the fancy pie shop, or hip music venues, or first-ever Brooklyn Whole Foods … when the name only made people think of a polluted canal and Superfund site. But, already, I digress…

As for size, we’ve always employed a ‘the more, the merrier’ attitude with the caveat that the best music floats from a jam that has a  smaller, tight circle where everyone can listen and hear one another. This makes the jam better for those playing as well as those listening. We achieve this by trading out with other musicians rather than by all playing at once. A couple fiddlers each playing a few tunes then passing off the chairs  tends to create a better jam experience than a line of six fiddlers all playing at once straining to hear what part of the tune the other is on. The fact that Lowlands is such a conducive space for non-musicians or musicians who come down to socialize rather than to play allows this trade-out to be completely natural: people play a few tunes, get up and grab a drink, say some hellos, and come back for a few more tunes. One of the greater lessons to learn is that we all don’t have to play every tune. I think there is some kind of old time FOMS (fear of missing something).

What types of tunes are you playing?

We alternate between fiddle tunes and songs. The most played tunes are the classic “war horse” ones like Cumberland Gap or Sugar Hill but for those that can tell the difference between one old time tune and the next (ha! ha!), there is a real privilege in hearing what kinds of old gems Stephie Coleman, Luke Richardson, or Nick Stillman might have in store. On the song front, Kristin Andreassen is such a great collector of songs both classic and obscure. She can wail them loud above the masses with lots of voices joining in harmony for the choruses. As the night progresses and people float in and out of the jam, the mood may change. By the wee hours, songs tend to dominate – sometimes moving to new genres. It varies from jam to jam depending on who is out and about.

What notable folks have stopped by the jam?

Betsy: We’re really lucky to have had some true ‘greats’ come by the jam. Perhaps my two favorites are the ones who hold down the fort with me every Monday: Stephie Coleman and Kristin Andreassen. Others include: Dirk Powell and Riley Baugus, the Punch Brothers, Jefferson Hamer and Anais Mitchell, Aoife O’Donovan, Adam Hurt, Margaret Glaspy, Julian Lage, Bob Boilen, Rayna Gellert, Lake Street Dive, The Sweetback Sisters, Joy Kills Sorrow, Miss Tess, Cedric Watson, Michael Daves, and … well, honestly, the list goes on and on, I don’t know where to stop! One never knows knows who might stroll through the doors of 543 3rd Avenue on Monday evening…

What’s the vibe like at this thing?

The usuals at Lowlands
A few of the usual suspects at Lowlands

By this point in the jam’s life there is definitely some consistency to who we see each week (Luke Richardson, Nick Stillman, Eli Hetko, Alex Kramer). Much of the jam’s success is owed to their commitment to good tunes and community as well as to the greater NYC old time scene’s patronage of our jam. I think the vibe is laid back and welcoming. While some of the best are there regularly, musicians of any and all levels are always welcome. I strongly feel the best way to learn this music is to get out and play. We’ve tried our best to avoid the elitism that has floated through other jams while maintaining a solid sound. Many of our beginners come on the early end and sit a little outside the circle so that they can observe and play what they can. They develop their ear while watching the chords Kristin or I are playing, following Stephie’s bowing, or just listening. There is a definite jam etiquette and diplomacy in old time music but I believe it’s all a two-way street. We need to respect musicians of all levels and remember that not every tune will be perfect from the first note struck, plucked, bowed, or hit. These lessons are as important to learn and remember as where the chord changes. They also apply to everyone, regardless of whether you’ve been playing for 40 years or 5 days. Everyone was a beginner at one point and, so, we need to encourage those taking the deep, dark dive into old time music! I think the Lowlands Jam has held fast to this mission.

What I have loved most about our “vibe” is that it has so mirrored the spirit of old time music, which is to bring people together – young, old, beginner, or expert without judgment. Lowlands is  an excellent window into the depth of the greater NYC old time scene — sometimes you only see the names and faces making headlines, but some of the best won’t get on a stage and much prefer the dimly lit circle of a jam session. This is the real spirit of the music – it isn’t about money, fame, prestige, or the individual – it’s about the community, friends, the groove, and fun.

What’s unique about this jam in comparison to other jams in the city?

Stephanie Coleman & Betsy
Stephanie Coleman & Betsy

Every jam in NYC has its own feel — some encourage drunken debauchery, others require introspective listening. What I love about Lowlands – what makes it feel right – is that you can have it all. We get started around 8:30 so the early birds can get in a few tunes before bed but it goes late for the night owls. The bar is big enough to invite non-musicians and you don’t feel pressured to buy drink after drink (though we strongly encourage supporting the bar and buying something, hint: they have great sandwiches!).  And, of course, if you want to guzzle whiskeys like the best of ’em, that’s welcome too. You can be a beginner or an expert and still find your place. Just as every jam has its own feel, every jam has its own personality. Much of that personality is determined by location and I strongly feel that Lowlands’ relaxed and welcoming vibe has been an integral element to the jam’s success.

At the risk of sounding repetitive, my favorite part of the jam is the music, which in turn is the community. I grew up in and around the tradition of old time music since my dad is an old time musician and enthusiast. From a young age, I started going to festivals, camps and sessions similar to the Lowlands Jam. Many of the faces around the jam are people I’ve known for years – Stephie and I met at a fiddle camp about 14 years ago. This ‘scene’ has in many ways become my life in Brooklyn despite the fact that I am far from being a professional musician and spend my days in a Manhattan cubicle. The jam and the community around it is really a musical family – we meet once a week for a Bud Light, Guinness, whiskey, or seltzer water, some laughs or rants, and always good music and great times. I hope we can keep it going for many years to come.

Garland & Banjo at Lowlands - Photo & bar tending by Blair McMillian
Garland & Banjo at Lowlands