Where the Grass Is Always Blue

Where the Grass Is Always Blue

Alexandria's bluegrass scene draws a loyal core of fans from the city and elsewhere.

Wander down King Street in Old Town Alexandria on a Friday or Saturday night, and you're liable to hear wafting over the noisy traffic the twangy vocals of a traditional bluegrass tune accompanied by clawhammer banjo, upright bass, wailing fiddle and rapid-fire mandolin.

For the past 26 years, Tiffany Tavern has featured live bluegrass music every Friday and Saturday night, drawing a loyal base of bluegrass fans from Alexandria and the surrounding region.

"Lot of people come here because of the bluegrass," said owner Ted Karanikolas, a Greek immigrant who bought the tavern a quarter century ago. "They feel it is good music. No cover charge. Good food. Good beer. Nice atmosphere. I always knew that if you find the right kind of music, it will bring the people into the restaurant."

Standing behind the bar as the bluegrass band Skystone tuned their instruments nearby, Karanikolas filled a mug of beer for a patron and glanced around at the Saturday evening crowd. "We have lot of regular bluegrass fans," he said. Very good people."

JIM CHURCHILL, an Alexandria resident and Cadillac salesman, has stopped in to listen to live bluegrass at Tiffany Tavern on Saturday nights since 1980.

A train aficionado, Churchill was bitten by the bluegrass bug thanks in large part to the genre's countless songs about railroads and steam engines. He didn't originally consider himself a bluegrass fan, but caught on after hearing popular regional acts like the Dixie Cannonballs, the Shaw Brothers and the New Mode Grass, based in Alexandria.

"I love this music and I love this place," he said, sipping a beer at the corner of the bar. "It's an English-looking pub with a Greek odor, American food and bluegrass music. You figure it out."

At Churchill's request, Monte Monteith, guitarist and lead singer of Skystone, led the band in a rendition of a Merle Haggard cover about railroad trains.

"This is not the Grand Ol' Opry," Monteith said. "If someone wants to hear something, we'll play the damn song. We'll play any ol' damn song."

Tiffany Tavern, Monteith declared, is easily the finest venue at which his five-piece band has performed in nearly two decades.

"Ted's the best guy I ever played for and I've been playing since I was your age or younger, young man," he said to this reporter, who is 25-years-old.

DON BALDWIN, a lobbyist and Alexandria resident, is another Tiffany Tavern regular. He visits the pub about once a month to hear what he called the "most authentic" bluegrass in the Washington, D.C. area.

"I enjoy bluegrass," Baldwin said. "It really expresses the average person who's not worried about traffic or the high cost of living. It's about the average guy; the average way of life and the simple pleasantries of life."

Mike Clarke, a Vienna resident and a baker, has been coming to Tiffany Tavern since 1983.

"There used to be street girls working around the corner," he said. "All that was here Hard Times Cafe, Tiffany Tavern and hookers."

Clarke grew up listening to WAMA (88.5 FM), which broadcasts bluegrass music on Sundays. "I just kind of grew up around it and I love it," he said.

Clarke's wife, Katherine Clarke, became a bluegrass fan while studying at Virginia Tech, located in southwest Virginia, the historical home of myriad bluegrass titans.

"Bluegrass music crosses the generations," she said. "Our parents listen to it and they're like, 'Ooh, I can understand the words!'"

Lynne Steltzer, a young woman who moved to Alexandria last month, stopped in with a friend Saturday night to pick up some carryout from the restaurant.

As they waited for their dinner, Stelzer's friend said she'd become a bluegrass fan because she loves the sound of fiddles. Steltzer added: "I'm a mandolin fan, myself."

EVEN AS bluegrass has fallen in and out of favor in Northern Virginia, Tiffany Tavern has remained a pillar of the region's bluegrass scene.

Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, the D.C. metropolitan area was considered one of the nation's top locales for bluegrass music.

"The Washington area was a mecca for bluegrass music," said Randy Barrett, president of the D.C. Bluegrass Union and a Falls Church resident.

Driven largely by top acts like the Seldom Scene of Bethesda and the Country Gentlemen of Arlington, between five and six clubs would feature live bluegrass music every night of the week. The Birchmere, located in Alexandria's Del Ray neighborhood, showcased major bluegrass acts nearly every night.

But the genre's popularity started to slide in the early 1990s, particularly after WAMU cut back on the amount of bluegrass they broadcast, Barrett said.

In the last six years, however, bluegrass has enjoyed a massive resurgence. The soundtrack to the Coen brothers' 2000 film, "O Brother Where Art Thou?" introduced a new generation to Alison Krauss & Union Station, Dr. Ralph Stanley and Emmylou Harris.

"We're starting to see a new shift and it's bringing a lot of new blood to bluegrass," Barrett said.

A banjo instructor, Barrett said young people are increasingly picking up traditional bluegrass instruments like banjoes and fiddles and listening to hip bluegrass acts like Nickel Creek and the Old Crow Medicine Show.

"It's coming back," he said.