6 months ago
Located a block away from the famous four-story Olive Garden in Times Square that stands as a testament to nostalgia and the desire to feel at home in the most famous city in the world, Opry City Stage, another four-story restaurant does Olive Garden one better: it feels like the home you always wanted to belong to.
I stepped inside the first floor and the staff of the relatively small gift shop with Johnny Cash t-shirts and other country memorabilia for sale directed me upstairs to meet with Lincoln Foley Schofield, the talent manager and booker for Opry City Stage.
I was greeted warmly by Lincoln, a man with a dark suit, a beard, and a friendly unassuming smile. He was finishing up eating with some folks and offered me a coffee at the bar while I sat down to get a look at the place and listen to the two-person band that just started playing. The tables and chairs on the second floor and the balcony above it are all situated with a clear view of the raised stage in the corner with dazzling curtains behind it and perfect lighting everywhere. Country music posters and even original outfits worn by country legends line the walls in case you somehow forgot where you were. It feels at once sleekly modern and at the same time pays tribute to the past.
I finish my coffee and Lincoln offers to take me on a tour of the place. He explains that they have been on a soft opening since December with only a few bands playing per day but have plans soon to have live music all day long, and once a week country two-step, line, or swing dancing on the floor with instructors in preparation for their large-scale grand opening.
There’s a large screen next to the stage that Lincoln tells me provides a constant video mix of the performances as well as the ability to broadcast it anywhere even on a giant screen in Times Square.
Our tour takes us to the green room where we say hello to the band that was just playing and they share some witty banter with us and have an ease with Lincoln that tells me that they are being treated very well.
Lincoln tells story after story as we walk the building, get onstage, and view the intimate performance space the Bluebird Café on the fourth floor. I was charmed by his easygoing humble manner and reverence for the music and the people who made it. By the end of our interview, I was almost as excited as he was about country music in New York.
I was reading some of your other interviews about how much your dad shaped your early life.
Lincoln Foley Schofield: My dad wasn’t famous, but he made a big impact on a lot of people. He was a philosophy professor and became a lawyer to avoid the draft, then later an organic farmer in his retirement. Born in Bay Ridge and raised on Long Island, he started a drug reform organization when I was young to legalize marijuana. I would take the D.A.R.E. books from school about how to resist drugs and my dad would say “this is such bullshit.” I was raised with a sense that just like a cup of coffee or a beer, drugs can have a place in your life and every drug should be treated differently. They’re a mental health issue and not a legal issue. He was a righteous person, and I took a lot of that from him. I grew up in a ghetto neighborhood and I saw a lot of the impact of the war on drugs. My mom would say “It’s nobody’s fault for being poor.” Dad’s organization was an effort and an effective effort to fix the system by lobbying politicians. It was called Reconsider, and it ended up affiliating with NORML, a national drug reform organization. When I was in high school, it was in High Times and my first job was stuffing letters for people who would meet in my living room. That was the early 90’s and we’re a lot closer to marijuana reform now because of efforts like Reconsider.
What kind of role does politics play in country music?
LFS: I’m proud of where country music is going right now in American politics. I think there is inclusiveness to all viewpoints in country music today and I’m encouraged by that. There has been a presumption that country fans are all right-wingers who don’t have a very open mind to other viewpoints. I am living proof that it is just not the case. Country music is an important pillar in our country and stars have held a lot of viewpoints, but in the past, the ones who have gained the most attention were people like Toby Keith singing about putting a boot in your ass. But now at the CMA awards, Carrie Underwood and Brad Paisley were making Trump jokes.
Do you ever rein anyone in from bringing a message too strongly?
LFS: When you put on a show, it’s not your place to tell the artist what to do. It’s their show. Right after the election I was at a Billy Joe Shaver concert in New York, and Shaver says to give Trump a chance and his audience says “no Billy,” and he says “Okay, well I guess I’m in the wrong city for this.” The vast majority of artists just stay away from controversy as Dolly Parton says “I’m an entertainer.” However, entertainers are people and they have points of view and often they want to share it. As someone who puts on a show, it’s not my job to tell people about what they shouldn’t say.
Obviously, that’s been done in concerts and in record production.
LFS: Certainly that kind of control is exercised more in record production. Berry Gordy tried to not let Marvin Gaye put out “What’s Going On” because he thought it was too controversial. Loretta Lynn’s song “The Pill” was too controversial at the time for a woman even though men were singing about things just as bad. When they banned “The Pill” it became a bigger song than if they just let it go.
Your background is rock and roll. Was it difficult to transition to country?
LFS: It was natural. John Prine and Willie Nelson were always on in my house growing up.
Now, whenever I’m at a John Prine concert, it makes me feel like I’m back in my farmhouse. Springsteen, Bob Seger, and The Band are directly rooted in American roots and the form of rock and roll is all country music. Its verse chorus verse chorus, it’s not jazz or blues; there’s no twelve-bar form here. Their music is rooted more in the country music form that turned into big rock and roll songs. When I worked at Hill Country as a booker, I was a big Waylon Jennings fan and in booking country music I discovered Billy Joe Shaver and Chris Knight. Chris is now one of my favorite songwriters and he should be in the Smithsonian for his storytelling. I discovered extraordinary artists who weren’t megastars and I could book them and through those experiences, I started to get the history from the horse’s mouth. Ten years later I want to know the back-story behind the music, I want to know who wrote the songs and often the country music history behind it. Our American music is about these things that converged like the banjo is an African instrument and the fiddle is a re-tuned violin and on to its European roots and how Irish storytelling was reinvented by immigrants and jazz was a blues and European mashup. Chet Atkins an extraordinary pop and jazz guitar virtuoso is a big part of that history the way he broke into country music and became one of the biggest producers in the country with the Nashville Sound. If you look at all music styles and take a look at their history, then you’ll see they converge and you can’t talk about country without talking about these other things as well. If you’re a rock and roll fan, you have to be a country fan.
You mentioned that the music takes you back and here at Opry City Stage you don’t have to go back too far because that history is right on the wall with various jackets and other country music memorabilia. How is Opry City Stage balancing nostalgia and the future at the same time?
LFS: One of the coolest things is that the first person to play on this stage when it was a construction zone with junk everywhere were Opry members Marty Stuart and Connie Smith. I mean we have Marty’s jacket on the wall. They came in and wanted to see what the Opry was doing in New York and he sang “Wabash Cannonball” and Connie Smith sang “Amazing Grace.” Some people bring sage into a new home and we brought some of the icons that built the Opry and are important stewards of it. That’s what’s important about the role that I have. You have to balance the history with what’s next, and we have new country stars and pop stars. We had an incredible bluegrass band called Mountain Heart. We have legends come up on stage like Bobby Osborne who’s famous for writing the song “Rocky Top.” Vince Gill was here and sang and we had Luke Bryan and Jason Aldean.
I think if you look at what we’ve done in the short time that we’ve been open it is quite balanced with the legends of country but the stars of today and who is coming next and across all the genres from western swing and bluegrass to bluegrass to outlaw country to Bakersfield country and to Johnny Cash. Opry City Stage has been the most important thing to happen to country music in New York City because we employ country musicians every day. We have three bands a day playing here and that has tripled the work for country musicians in New York. Soon we’ll have music all day and all night and that alone gives work to these folks. If you can be a working musician, you can really develop a craft and be at a competitive level. To me, what’s more important than all of the superstars that come through, and the history on the walls is that we’re creating so much work.
Do you see yourself as more of a curator or a booker?
LFS: Both. The mechanics of it are like being an air traffic controller. The booker job is thankless only because the presumption is that everything goes right and the bands aren’t sick and nothing happens out of order. The only time anyone notices your job is when the bands don’t show up. The curation part is exciting because when bands submit their music one of the key things we look for is music rooted in classics and the ability to play contemporary music as well. Most bands are either mostly one or the other, and we encourage that because of the various ages of people coming. The younger audience won’t know the classics, but the older folks will. The older ones might have never heard of Jason Aldean or Taylor Swift. We want to present the history of country so everyone of all ages can tie on to a song that gets played.
Would you book a country musician far outside of the norm like Hank Williams III?
LFS: Absolutely, because Hank III plays classic country music, but at the same time he doesn’t play country music at all. I would let Hank III get up there and shake a tambourine or do hip-hop because of the legacy. Shooter Jennings is another one like that. He’s made exceptional country records, but he won’t stay in the box. If he wants to make a video game record, he’s gonna do it and he just produced Brandi Carlile’s new record. That’s what you get when you’re the sons of outlaw country legends. You can’t be put in a box.
I noticed you still do a music showcase with your own band. How does that play into staying fresh and getting your creative juices going when doing an entirely different role?
LFS: Being a booker is one of the best things a musician could ever do because every day I see the best musicians. If you’re seeing music and other techniques and riffs, that’s how you develop as a player of your own. It’s turned me into a pedal steel guitar player which I never thought would happen. It’s really pushed me to be honest about releasing my own music because after seeing the level of musicianship that’s out there, I won’t even bother if I can’t play on that level.
So you don’t think you’ll play up here?
LFS: I’ve never played at a venue I’ve booked and I think that’s a responsible way to be a booker. Part of your job is telling people they have to develop more, and if you are putting yourself on it doesn’t seem responsible.
Did you think this area was ready for country music?
LFS: I think country music has been underserved here and I know radio station Nash FM came back, but there used to be the Lone Star Cafe and Denim & Diamonds in New York. You see there are country places in New York; one of my favorite bars was the Rodeo Bar. You wouldn’t believe how many country bands are here. I couldn’t come close to putting them all on if I had ten slots a day. We have a wealth of players here in New York. The question of “would the tourists would come?” was to me what was to be determined.
We have bands that play here and ask “where are you folks from?” They’re from everywhere! Sweden, Australia, Asia, and all over they’re in search of American culture and values. The United States best export is music, and if you want to see the conscience of a country, then look at the songs and the stories that happen in three minutes. This is a great outpost for American culture because you can see our history through that lens.
How do you feel about the responsibility of being the first outpost of the Grand Ole Opry?
LFS: That’s something I take very seriously, and I’ve been working hard to be a good steward of the brand. I’ve spent a great deal of time learning as much as I can from Opry Entertainment and other resources. Opry didn’t just license the name; they are very involved in this. Opry Entertainment approved all of the bands that I book, and we’ve worked together for about a year and a half now. I believe I’ve earned trust with them, and they can count on me to have the judgment that represents the brand. You can’t assume that just because someone has experience in booking shows that they will make responsible decisions without any guidance. So I’ve taken working with Opry Entertainment on exactly what it should look and feel like very seriously.
Can you talk about some of the bands that have made a name for themselves here like The Nashville Attitude?
LFS: They’re a great band to mention and I’ve been working with them for eight years. They’re a band that was playing Hill Country (another New York City restaurant with live music), and they were a brand new band playing at off nights and they had a great show and Marc Vincent Sica is a passionate musician and bandleader. He’s a great example of sticking to the craft and the process paying off. When I got this job, Marc was my first call. I told him “I’m helping to open a new place called Opry City Stages and I’d love for you to be involved.” They were a great band in 2010, but the show they’ve developed now is a great example of Opry City Stage at its best. They play the history of country music to the contemporary hits in a fun and exciting way that presents a killer Nashville experience right here in New York.
What do you think the phrase Nashville attitude represents? Not the band but the idea behind that.
LFS: It’s about music first: the stories and the songs. It’s about the gettin’ rowdy on a Saturday night and asking for forgiveness on Sunday morning and all those songs tell that story.
Are there any other partnerships you’re proud of?
LFS: We have a partnership with the USO and we’re one of the top venues for Fleet Week and for the sailors and soldiers to come here. Someone who’s a personal hero of mine Roger Alan Wade is headlining that and Roger is one of the sweetest and funniest legendary songwriters you’ll ever meet. He wrote “Country State of Mind” a number one hit for Hank Williams Jr. and songs for Johnny Cash and he’s the cousin of Johnny Knoxville. Roger is a living jukebox that knows every song you can name and delivers them with such humor and humanity and his songs have become a soundtrack of my life. He’s playing May 23-26.
What’s the main takeaway you want people to get when they come here?
LFS: I want them to feel that this is a fun disarming welcoming environment that’s a little bit of Nashville in New York, and it’s inclusive of everybody all over the world from all walks of life. I want them to really feel what it means to have southern hospitality, southern cooking, and hear great songs that tell the story of the history of country music.
Is there anything else you’re excited about that we haven’t talked about yet?
LFS: The Bluebird Cafe songwriter series is one of the most important things we’re doing for the authenticity of the Nashville experience. This style of show was founded at the Bluebird and they’re bringing hit songwriters here to New York. That’s on the fourth floor, and it happens every month.