Sunny’s Bar on a recent Wednesday night was packed. The last of the longshoremen’s bars that once dotted the Red Hook waterfront, the sepia-toned watering hole is, nowadays, known as a bohemian stronghold and a vital neighborhood institution.
Tonight, customers are packed into the front room, swaying to the rhythms of Smokey’s Roundup, in full Western wear, play a swinging “San Antonio Rose.” Regulars kibbitz with the competent bartender. Visitors wander, examining the photography exhibit on view. In the back room, a group of women make up a placid knitting circle. And an old-timer with a vintage Brooklyn inflection pulls a surprised 20-something onto the floor to execute a lively two-step—deftly avoiding the dog lounging directly underfoot.
The photographs in question are a show by Jim Herrington of music greats: moody, expressive portraits of Hank Williams, Gillian Welch, Dolly Parton. And one of them looks familiar: Yes, that’s Smokey Hormel, the one in the next room playing a Gretsch and singing Bob Wills, pictured in consultation with the Clash’s Joe Strummer.
Smokey’s something of a legend: a musician’s musician who’s played with everyone from Johnny Cash to Beck, Tom Waits to Neil Diamond, Joe Dee to Rufus Wainwright. He’s worked with Cibo Matto and collaborated frequently with Rick Rubin. And here he is, every Wednesday night in a 10-gallon hat and Western shirt, leading Smokey’s Roundup.
“These regular gigs with Smokey’s Roundup have become a life saver for me,” he writes on his Web site. “They have allowed me to keep my spirits up through hard times, and to continue the tradition of this great music that I love so much.”
As a teenager, Smokey learned Western swing from one of the greats: Jimmy Wyble, who played with Bob Wills. In L.A., he played with a band called the Radio Ranch Straight Shooters, but after coming East got caught up in rock. He met up with fiddler Charlie Burnham while working on the soundtrack for the Nickelodeon show The Backyardigans. They added Tim Luntzel on bass and Andrew Borger on drums, and three years ago the Roundup was born.
It was pedal steel player Bob Hoffnar, a Sunny’s regular, who suggested they start playing at the saloon. “They’ll let us play,” he added confidently, and soon they became a Wednesday institution. “As soon as I put my foot in there, I knew this is where we should be playing,” Smokey says of the comfortably aged space. “That room is full of—I don’t want to say ghosts—but there’s definitely a good spirit, a sense of history.” For the first two years, the band dealt only with the bar’s manager, Francis, and Sunny’s wife: the famously idiosyncratic owner stayed upstairs. “But as soon as I met him, I felt like I’d known him forever,” Smokey says.
“It’s really a gift for a musician,” he adds, “having a space like that to experiment. And you can’t take yourself too seriously: As soon as you put on the big hat, you need a sense of humor. And Sunny’s helps with that: When I’m playing and I look up and see the Marx Brothers figurines over the bar, and there’s a dog or two or three underfoot, it puts me at ease. I can’t say enough good things about this place; it’s special.”
It is. In a city full of carefully weathered ceilings and ersatz charm, Sunny’s is the real deal, complete with eccentrics and an atmosphere that’s welcoming while still feeling firmly local. Open only a few nights a week, it’s a mecca for some and a comfortable neighborhood institution for others. Luckily for regulars, it’s hard to access.
The Red Hook crowd, too, is an easygoing, if faithful one. Although now audiences come from around the city, the band estimates it’s generally half made up of regulars, some of whom have become good friends. The repeat customers have proved a challenge, even with the band’s repertoire of more than 200 songs by Wills, Milton Brown and others, and this encourages experimentation.
“When we see people dancing, I know we’re doing a good job,” Smokey says, “especially because it’s so hard to dance there! I think in our culture, live music has been separated from dance, and that’s a shame. I want to change that—this music was made for dancing!”