The Business of Busking: A Bluegrass Duo Bring New Life to an Old Genre in New York City
It’s not every day that a dance party erupts on the L train at the Bedford Avenue stop in Brooklyn. It’s also not every day that you see a homemade kick drum suitcase or hear a rugged voice blaring out a bluegrass rendition of an old Grateful Dead song coming from the subway either.
More than 7 million people have watched the “adorable little dancer” video on YouTube, but you might not recognize the magnetic bluegrass sound featured in the video. That’s because the band Coyote & Crow are still making a name for themselves performing on the streets and subways of New York City. Husband-and-wife duo Thomas and Jaime Kopie are among the many musicians who make a living by busking throughout the various boroughs.
Earlier this year Coyote & Crow played a weekly gig at the Leadbelly, a speakeasy in Manhattan’s Lower East Side. Manager Carmine Scheubel says a co-worker brought the band in after seeing them perform on the subway and ever since their video went viral people recognize them.
“Crowds love them that’s why we keep bringing them back,” says Scheubel. “They fill the room.”
Booking gigs wasn’t the band’s original plan, but it has been a welcome opportunity. After moving from New York’s North Country eight years ago, the Kopies made the decision to leave behind corporate retail jobs in order to move to the Big Apple and busk full time.
“We were both always intrigued and inspired by the musicians and subway/street performers and decided to give it a shot,” says Jaime. “We soon realized that we could not only make money doing what we love, but also be able to book paying gigs and private events.”
When not playing a paid gig, the duo go back to doing what they love most — busking around the city. They say it gives them the freedom to play on their own terms.
“Living in the city and being surrounded by the constant energy is great for staying motivated,” says Thomas. “There are so many opportunities at our fingertips and being able to meet and connect with people from all over the world is truly a blessing.”
But it comes with highs and lows. At Washington Square Park this particular Saturday afternoon Coyote & Crow have to battle a group of dancers whose boombox is so loud it overpowers them. They play for a couple of hours before packing up and opting to play a different location the following day.
The Kopies show up to perform at one of their favorite locations, the Delancy/Essex F stop in Manhattan. Jaime plays an upright banjo bass that Thomas built from scratch. They say it brings them a lot of attention and today is no different. Crowds gather around between songs to ask them about it. The band says the banjo bass hasn’t been around since the 1920s, but they keep the details of how they built it under wraps for fear of others replicating it.
Thomas plays the banjo and kick drum, which he also built from scratch out of a vintage leather suitcase. Thomas, in a button-down flannel and handkerchief around his neck, is often mistaken as being from the south. Jaime, who has more of a hippie vibe, flaunts a long floral print dress. Their look is a blend of many genres, just like their music, which they describe as old-time rock ‘n’ soul.
“We have a raw, old-time jug-band style with a big rock ‘n’ roll influence and a lot of bluesy soul,” says Thomas.
Between passing trains, Coyote & Crow draw a crowd, which forms a semi-circle around the band. Kids and parents come by to tip them. People of various ethnic backgrounds take photos and clap along. Many remove their headphones to listen.
One of the onlookers, Michelle Kettler, who is visiting the city from Florida, stops long enough to watch.
“It was refreshing to see a band that was so simplistic and had an old-school sound,” she says. “The kick-drum suitcase and homemade standup bass make for a unique performance. They’re a good time.”
Coyote & Crow perform some of their original tunes as well as renditions of Bob Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice It’s All Right” and Zombie’s “Summertime.”
The band has worked hard this year to complete their second album “Old Time Rock -N- Soul” where most of their songs were recorded in one-take with little to no editing. The songs, a reflection of their city and country life, appear to put passerbyers in a musical trance as they wait for the approaching train.
“People seem very intrigued by us — our sound, our energy, our style. We love it when we can get people smiling, dancing and clapping along,” says Jaime.
Though the band has plans to tour the U.S. and Europe next summer, New York City still holds their hearts. If you can’t catch them on the streets or subway look for Coyote & Crow at The Wayland in Manhattan or the Otis Mountain Get Down festival in Elizabeth, New York this fall.