Like many a good time passed in New Orleans, the weekly Monday night Bluegrass Pickin' Party at the Hi-Ho Lounge tends to start early and end late.
As one recent all-acoustic jam started, roughly a dozen musicians with guitars, fiddles, mandolins, banjos and an upright bass took seats in a circle of chairs arranged on the club's dance floor. Around them, a crowd of 30 gathered in the dive-ish club's dim red-hued lighting.
The musicians struck up a song 15 minutes before the announced 8 p.m. start and cajoled each other with commands of "all in C," "gypsy jazz guitar" and "jug house" as they sailed through old-time staples including "Sitting on Top of the World" and nascent gospel classic "The Hand of the Almighty," recorded by John R. Butler in 2003. At a few minutes past 10 p.m., per tradition, the group launched into Roy Acuff's "Wreck on the Highway," followed by a take on Merle Haggard's "Tonight the Bottle Let Me Down," with the late outlaw-country great's 1966 lyrics amended to, "Each night I leave the Hi-Ho when it's over / Not feeling any pain at closing time."
Closing with those two covers is one of a few rules governing the Bluegrass Pickin' Party, a family affair that marks its 10th anniversary Jan. 30.
The event marks a decade since Geoff Coats, Mike Kerwin, Matt Rota and a few otherss approached former Hi-Ho owner John Hartsock about playing bluegrass music in the bar on Monday nights, says Tucker Baker, a guitarist and banjo player with 100 or so Pickin' Parties under his belt.
"Those boys came by and jammed like they did Monday nights at Liuzza's by the Track before [Hurricane Katrina]," Baker says. "They got it up and going again and it went on its own from there."
Bartender Brett Peifer says the Bluegrass Pickin' Party brings him a crowd of customers not found anywhere else on a Monday night.
"Cool as hell," Peifer says in describing the weekly event's vibe. "The musicians are super laid-back. ... They're having fun, hooting and hollering."
A few minutes later, Victoria Coy led fellow players into "Jolene." Her version of Dolly Parton's song (notably covered by Jack White) "is slightly different," Coy says. She first attended the Pickin' Party 10 years ago with her dad, who taught her bluegrass during childhood. After countless jams of only sitting and listening, Coy discovered her latent passion for playing and singing bluegrass. She says celebrity sit-ins — Ed Helms twice, Peter Rowan once — were highlights, but notes bands formed on the basis of connections made at the Pickin' Party, including Sweet Olive String Band, The Necessary Gentlemen and The High Ground Drifters.
"That's the neatest thing," she says, "To see how these connections start to develop and spot what people have been playing together after this."
"This is one of the most open bluegrass jams, acoustic jams, you'll find," Baker says. "The key thing is to just keep it going. Maintain consistent music quality in a place that's open with a good format in a good set-ting that'll make folks want to just come on by."