Country music, or anything with a sizeable twang factor, seems a bit out of place in New YorkState.
To the outsider, New York is often misinterpreted simply as one big concrete jungle, a never-ending Gotham, when in reality the majority of the EmpireState is green. It's the same thing up here along the mighty Genesee. You live in Rochester long enough, the city --- and its dirty little suburban offspring --- obscures the pastoral beauty that surrounds us.
This isn't to say music is purely dictated by geography, but real American roots music is, well, rooted. It sounds better with a little mud on its kicks. Or maybe it just makes a little more sense coming from an earthier setting.
Just hop on Route 64. Head east a ways and you're in Bloomfield, home of cow pastures, cornfields, and Blue Jimmy. Blue Jimmy is a well-worn roots-rock quintet that shuffles country, folk, and rock into a loaded deck of fantastic Americana. Musicians that fall into this category --- The Old '97s, The Jayhawks, Wilco, Lucinda Williams --- often tend to lean in favor of one particular flavor in their mix. Blue Jimmy blends. Full of lush five-part harmonies and grooves that bop, rock, swing, and waltz, Blue Jimmy may be one of the most perfectly balanced, trulyAmericana bands you'll hear.
"I don't think we've put ourselves in front of enough country people," says singer Brian Ayers. "Most of the people that have heard us are more rock oriented."
If you wanna simplify, Blue Jimmy is a rock band. Its songs could ride in any number of vehicles. But there's an undeniable twang and the lonesome Nashville cry of pedal steel beneath storied lyrics and clever structure. Hence the country tag.
"The people that like country music tend to like better constructed songs, something they can identify with" says guitarist Greg Gefell. "As opposed to some rock guy who may just wanna go out there and hear some chops."
But Blue Jimmy's got the chops too; chops that are decades old. Gefell and bassist Mike Nelson met in the fourth grade. Two years later they were playing progressive rock with Nelson's brother Steve on drums.
The band got its start backing up Ayers, who up until that point was cruising the coffee house circuit solo. The marriage of Ayers' acousticity with the power trio --- as well as the addition of Ayers' brother Chad on mandolin and guitar --- worked.
A recent City Walk turned into City Dance when a group of pub crawlers stopped off at Richmond's. Blue Jimmy was on stage. Unobtrusive in a kind of wash 'n' wear way, the band held a casual groove while standing shoulder to shoulder on the tiny bandstand. World beat bounced off folky jams that sashayed and swung with the back beat and rock. Mandolin and b-bender-style guitar gave added zip while the bass and drums shifted gears smoothly, keeping things tight from the floor up. Beer flowed, toes tapped, heads bopped slightly, half plugged-in to the band.
Then Blue Jimmy kicked in with their tune "Darlin'" --- a full-bore country, 2/4 boogie gem. The dance floor (not much bigger than the stage) flooded immediately. Some of the flood could dance, too. But it's truly a testament to a great band that can get those who really can't dance to get up and shamelessly shake what they got.
Yeah, it's the beat to a certain extent. And the slick playing --- Mike Nelson's bass attack will break your back trying to keep up and Gefell's Travis finger-style will give you vertigo. But it really rests on the shoulders of Blue Jimmy's beautiful songwriting.
"Find a nice lick, find a couple catchy riffs, build some sensible chord structures around them," says Ayers of the band's songwriting approach --- an approach that surprisingly leaves lyrics as an afterthought, in the backseat. "I don't really care what I'm singing about," he says. "I don't care what the words are. I really don't. I just need something to feel like it belongs."
Moods and themes are irrelevant to Ayers, who opts to sing nonsensical syllables over a fresh melody until they morph into words. It's a lot of hit and miss.
"But if I find something that's 'that's it,' the song will come in 15 minutes, no more, front to back, every word."
This seems like a modest oversimplification. It's hard to credit this haphazard Ouija board method to lyrics like Ayers'. "I wish I was able/to say things that might make you smile/but the two feet between me and you/feels like a mile" he sings on the title track off the band's debut The Two Feet Between Me And You.
Once a song's completed the band applies "the campfire test."
"If there's something that sounds great and you can sing it around the campfire with a coupla dreadnoughts then we're onto something," says Nelson.
With work begun on a forth album the band continues to play Western New York and beyond, adopting the work ethic of Blue Jimmy Hardy --- the group's namesake taken from old English literature.
"He was a horse thief who was actually a well-to-do gentleman," says Nelson. "He didn't have to steal horses. But it was like a sickness. We're OK, but it's like a sickness. We gotta do it."
Blue Jimmy plays with Gary Hoey Wenesday, May 24, at Montage Live, 50 Chestnut Street, 232-1520, at 8 p.m. $10. 21+. www.bluejimmy.com