Ben Hope and the Uptown Outfit is not a typical New York City musical act.
Since their first show at the Bitter End five years ago, musicians John Rochette, Eric Anthony, Miles Aubrey, Andy Galore, David Finch and others have confidently found a niche for their brand of country music in New York.
Their goal: to change the way you think about the often-criticized genre.
Born and raised in Alabama, Hope moved to New York eight years ago to pursue a career on Broadway.
After finding significant success as an actor, winning the Kennedy Center award for Most Promising Career in 2006 with lead roles in productions like “Ring of Fire,” “Hank Williams: Lost Highway,” “The Buddy Holly Story” and now “Once,” Hope has now become focused on his own music.
Today Hope and much of the band are living and playing throughout the borough of Queens and in the middle of releasing several singles – “Colleen,” “On the Run” and one more on the way - off their new album “Ragged and Rowdy,” expected to be released in February of 2015.
I spoke with Hope earlier this week to discuss the upcoming LP and find out what it’s like to be a country/honky-tonk band based in the home of hip hop and rock and roll.
What’s it like being a musician in Queens right now?
I think it’s coming up much the way Brooklyn did. You know, prices are going up everywhere but certainly in Brooklyn or Manhattan, so it’s hard to be an artist or creating in any of those places now. And places like Astoria or Woodside - almost all the actors I know live in Astoria, most of the musicians I know now live in Woodside or Astoria - so I think it’s a great place and there are a lot of artists finding their home here.
Do you find there are places to play in Queens?
We’ve had a lot of success playing out here in Queens and there seem to be new places popping up all the time. I have been getting a lot of phone calls from people because we’re also a country band based out of Queens, which makes us even more rare. We’ve been getting calls from several bars that want to start a country or folk music night on their slower nights, on Tuesdays or on their weekends. There are some Sunday night bluegrass jams, for instance. So there have been a lot of places that are trying to make their focus on live music now.
What brought you to New York?
Well I’ve been an actor – I’m currently in the production Once on Broadway – so I came to New York to do that. I come from Alabama, and I’ve always played and I’ve been a writer. So when I got here, I had some real good buddies here – and we were all real good drinkers together – so just sitting around we started playing music.
I introduced them to my tunes and those guys really enjoyed them. Before we knew it we had a band and now it’s the love of my life. It’s all I want to do with my time.
When you were living in Alabama, were there misconceptions about moving to New York?
Yeah, absolutely. I couldn’t have been less prepared to move here. Of course I knew it was quite a shock. It’s a much different place than Birmingham, but in my mind I made it a much harder place and uncomfortably cold place than it actually is. I think I moved here with a little chip on my shoulder, like I wouldn’t let this place in because I didn’t want it to hurt me or something.
After a year or so I realized the only person here with a problem was me. You really have to open your heart up to the city to really let it be kind to you. The cool thing here is everyone has a bad New York day. But yes, I think I had a misconception for sure.
Where did the idea of making it in New York come from?
It was probably the Broadway community. I took a trip up here when I was like 16 to see some Broadway shows, although I truly never thought I would live here. It didn’t really seem like an option for me until I actually graduated college.
Was Broadway a big part of your childhood?
Yeah, it was. I was always a performer growing up as a kid. You know, singing in the church choir and then in middle and high school I started getting into the theater. I had a lot of success – winning awards and stuff – something I’m really grateful for because it really gave me compliments that I otherwise wouldn’t have had.
I have developed a solid 10-year career of being a stage actor, which has been awesome, but also a very difficult thing to achieve. I’m really proud of it. But that is definitely why I’m here. The arts education in Birmingham was amazing and I was lucky to have gone through that.
How did you decide to break away from that and start your own band?
Yeah, I was thinking about that yesterday. It’s really funny because someone said, “so you named your band after yourself, right?” [laughs] My drummer, the original drummer from my band, is actually on the road with “Jersey Boys” right now, but he and I – when we were both unemployed – we would go down the subway tunnels just to play music.
His name is John Rochette, and he would get really lit up in the face when we would play one of my songs. He didn’t want to play cover songs, he really enjoyed playing the stuff that I was writing, and that really built up a strong confidence in me that the material that I was writing was better than that other stuff.
It sounds really cheesy, but that quote – be the change you want to see in the world – so it’s kind of applicable to the country music world. The country music that you hear on most radio stations is just absolute crap. And I want to be able to turn on a radio and just turn a station on that I enjoy what I’m hearing and that isn’t really easy to do in a mainstream setting. The pop machine has kind of taken over all of it.
So, I started trying to write the songs that I want to hear on the radio and write the songs that mean something to me and sound like what I want the radio to sound like.
How do you change that misconception for people that aren’t really in the country music realm?
I wish I knew. I think the beauty of country music, and why people are turning their back on the mainstream stuff, is that it does have a system. It does have a certain number of ingredients, but that doesn’t mean you can just throw them all in a bowl and mix them together.
You have to bake it at the right temperature, you have to add salt at the right time, and I think it’s more difficult than what major labels are making it out to be. I think it’s just a combination of ingredients all thrown into a thing and put on top of a fire. It takes more love and care than that.
What kind of response have you been getting from New York audiences?
It has been beautiful actually. But what I think is really wonderful about it is that people have been really kind and no one ever scoffs at us or seems to be annoyed by our sound in the city. I think the only one that really closed themselves off was myself. I think New Yorkers are incredibly perceptive and go along with you as long as you don’t annoy them or piss them off.
The only thing that’s weird is you can walk around with your hair dyed green or be weird or do whatever you want, but when you walk around this town with a cowboy hat on, people do look at you, like, “Who the hell do you think you are walking around in a cowboy hat?”
Check out Ben Hope and the Uptown Outfit at the Branded Saloon located at 603 Vanderbilt Avenue on January 25 at 8 p.m.