Country in the Catskills

Mickey Barnett honored as a History Maker

By LIAM MAYO
Posted 10/20/21

Country legend Mickey Barnett has earned a full trophy case of awards throughout his career. He found a national audience with singles like “Just a Memory,” “Gone,” and …

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Country in the Catskills

Mickey Barnett honored as a History Maker

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Country legend Mickey Barnett has earned a full trophy case of awards throughout his career. He found a national audience with singles like “Just a Memory,” “Gone,” and “Don’t You Believe Her.” He has earned accolades like Male Vocalist of the Year, Entertainer of the Year and Band of the Year, and has been honored as a legend by the Rockabilly Hall of Fame.

On Sunday, October 24, Barnett will add another award to that trophy case. The Sullivan County Historical Society has selected him for the 2021 annual History Maker award.

“I’m thrilled about it,” says Barnett. “It’s unbelievable—I feel really honored.”

That honor comes earned from a career spent building up the country music scene in Sullivan County, in the Catskills and in the Northeast as a whole.

Barnett was everywhere, says Aldo Troiani, the historical society board member who nominated him for the award. He played at all the resorts in the Catskills, back when the Borscht Belt was at its peak, and at many of the region’s weddings and bar mitzvahs.

Those Sullivan County venues, places like the Concord Resort and Kutscher’s Hotel and Country Club, held a lot of people, says Barnett, anywhere from three hundred to three thousand. And unlike many musicians, who picked one venue and set up shop there, he traveled between them, playing for a different crowd each night.

It was a good gig. The feedback Barnett got from his audiences was electric. “I couldn’t wait to get up on the stage,” he says. Playing each performance at a different hotel kept him on his toes, and at the end of each night, he could go home to his own bed.

Record executives asked Barnett to move down to Nashville, to continue his career in Music City, U.S.A. He spent some time there, recording sessions backed by a 32-piece orchestra.

But when he asked friends in the industry if he should give up his Borscht Belt gig and move down to Nashville full time, they told him he’d be crazy to make the move.

A career down South would involve touring on the road for two months at a time, sleeping on the bus and only getting two weeks of rest at home before heading out again. “What you have up there is the perfect thing,” he recalls them saying.

So instead of bringing his sound down to Nashville, he focused on bringing the Nashville sound up to the Catskills, as a performer and as a producer.

In 1970, Barnett became first vice president, then president of the Eastern States Country Music Association, a group founded to promote country artists throughout the northeast.

It wasn’t entirely by choice. Johnny Brewer, a friend of Barnett’s who was running for president, invited him to the meeting where the vote was being held. Brewer won the presidency at that meeting, and asked Barnett if he’d be vice president.

Barnett accepted. “Vice presidents don’t do anything,” he recalls thinking. “So I’ll do it.” When the association was planning its annual convention, he volunteered as convention chairman, still thinking that he’d have no duties as the organization’s vice president.

Two months before the convention, Brewer resigned from his position, leaving Barnett as president, vice president and convention chairman all rolled into one.

Barnett’s first year as president started the association’s revitalization. An article in the May 15, 1971 issue of Billboard notes that “The convention, however, was markedly improved from that of recent years, in which organization had been lacking.”

But the association was still struggling, says Barnett. In the run-up to the 1973 convention, he decided that it had to do something towards its own revitalization.

He got new people on the board of directors, bringing in radio personalities, publishers, songwriters and more. He arranged to bring musicians up from Nashville for the convention, to teach the Nashville style of recording country music. And most crucially, he brought the convention itself to the Catskills, holding it at Kutsher’s Country Club.

That convention provided a shot in the arm to country music in the Catskills. Talking with Billboard for its September 15, 1973 issue, Barnett noted that country music was surging in the region, with resorts across the Borscht Belt booking country acts.

That surge in country music wasn’t confined to traditional venues. Barnett partnered with Leon Greenberg, then president of the Monticello Raceway, to publicize the convention and to bring country acts to the racetrack itself.

Greenberg would bring in rock-and-roll acts on Saturday nights to draw crowds before the races, recalls Barnett. With Barnett’s help, Greenberg brought in Roy Clarke, a country guitarist and the star of the show “Hee-Haw.”

Clarke showed up at 10:00 on Sunday morning and drew more of an audience than the crowd for the Saturday races, says Barnett, showing that country music had more of an audience than the rock-and-rollers did. According to Billboard, over ten thousand people showed up to hear Clarke perform.

Country star Mickey Barnett will be honored as a History Maker by the Sullivan County Historical Society.
Country star Mickey Barnett will be honored as a History Maker by the Sullivan County Historical Society.
Mickey Barnett brought country music to Sullivan County.
Mickey Barnett brought country music to Sullivan County.

With the Eastern States County Music Association bringing its conventions to the Catskills, and with venues across the Borscht Belt promoting country music, the musical culture of the region surged.

The association put Sullivan County on the map, says Barnett. “We were the pioneers that brought them up here first.”

The musical culture that Barnett helped inspire led directly to Sullivan County being the only place willing to host Woodstock, says Troiani; it wasn’t that music in the Catskills started with Woodstock, but that Woodstock itself came out of the region’s surging musical scene.

Music has evolved in the county since the days of Woodstock and the Borscht Belt. Resort venues like Kutscher’s and the Concord have given way to smaller performance spaces like Rafters and Cabernet Frank’s (with the notable exception of Bethel Woods, which still features world-renowned country acts). There’s less rock-and-roll, and more acoustic Americana.

Barnett himself is semi-retired, now, but he’s still making music. He has recorded his last eight albums in a studio in his Sullivan County home, and he’s still recording singles and collaborating with other bands, such as Troiani’s group Little Sparrow.

But the region’s current musical scene remains a direct outgrowth of the country revival that Barnett sparked back in the 1970s, an impact that the Sullivan County Historical Society is honoring with its History Maker Award.

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