By Mark Hallum
Some things in New York City simply do not meet expectations. Take the Island City Outlaws, for example. When Matt Cusack and Alex Kerckhoff started bringing the cowboy tunes of Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson and Hank Williams—among others—to Queens about three years ago, acceptance from borough musical audiences might not have been totally expected. But that’s what has happened.
LIC Bar, at 45-58 Vernon Blvd. in Long Island City, acts as the main headquarters for Island City Outlaws’ shows and was the location of their Labor Day performance paying tribute to one of the fathers of the outlaw country movement, Waylon Jennings. Jennings is most famous for recording songs such as “Mamas, Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to be Cowboys,” and “Luckenback, Texas” and for his membership in the country supergroup The Highwaymen, which also featured Cash, Nelson and Kris Kristofferson.
“It’s the sort of thing when we just talk to people, they don’t necessarily know this music or admit to being fans of it. But whenever we play it for them, they realize that they love it,” Kerckhoff said. “The reception in Long Island City has been really great. People that we’ve never met come because we put a poster up and they’ve been there the last two, three, four shows and they keep coming back, which is amazing.”
But Island City Outlaws is more than just a cover band. Each set they play is put together as a tribute to a single country music legend, rather than creating a mixed bag of cover songs. They are, however, also prone to play the occasional original song. With Cusack on accoustic guitar and Kerckhoff playing his Fender Stratocaster, the first show Island City Outlaws performed was a tribute to Willie Nelson.
“The idea for the band is to do these tribute nights and have friends join in singing these old country standards and lost gems,” Cusack said. We usually have a handful of guest players and singers each time we put these nights together.”
The two said that keeping to a certain theme is not only fun for the audience, but it also helps the musicians to discover the more obscure hits from each artist. When Island City Outlaws paid tribute to Dolly Parton, they had to go beyond the tunes she is best known for.
“Getting into the deeper tracks is one of the more interesting parts of focusing on one artist,” Cusack said.
With many of the artists to whom Island City Outlaws pays homage growing old and dying, the tributes become increasingly sentimental. Guy Clark’s death was acknowledged in May with Kerckhoff performing “Step Inside this House,” a song which was picked up by Lyle Lovett and became the title track on his 1998 album.
The Island City Outlaws have a Hank Williams tribute slated for November. They are calling the show Hanksgiving.
The surprising aspect of sharing country music with New Yorkers, Cusack said, is that the dance hall aspect of the genre comes to the surface during live performances and audiences cannot help but get into the rhythm.
Reach reporter Mark Hallum by e-mail at mhall