When Jerry Jeff Walker, the Texas troubadour known for guitar-picking, toe-tapping, red-dirt Americana, died this past October, the ripples of grief pinged out to Miami’s tree-shaded Shorecrest neighborhood. That’s where Nick Mencia had been styling a musical micro-scene modeled after Walker, one of his heroes.
Under the musical name Nick County, Mencia has been crafting bittersweet, largely acoustic-driven outlaw country almost willfully out of step with most contemporary underground music streams, in Miami or elsewhere. But after years of crafting Gram Parsons-worthy handkerchief-soakers alone, he took a page from his idol Walker — if there wasn’t a solid scene of like-minded players, he’d seek to bring them together.
“Jerry Jeff spent time here down here in Miami in Coconut Grove,” County says. “He was hanging out with Joni Mitchell and all these people who were kind of around [the midcentury music venue] the Gaslight in Coconut Grove. He was always moving around. That was part of the essence of who he was — his spirit and his songs. His songs became an extension of that, almost a lifestyle.”
In 2010s Miami, then, enter Public Works Records, the record label County cofounded in 2019 with friends and fellow local artists Oly and Julian Martin. The trio of art-world friends and colleagues shared a vision of an artistic collective that was “genre-agnostic,” in Nick County’s words, but one that boosted artists focused on the craft of songwriting. Together, playing songwriter-in-the-round, jam-like showcases, they’d be musically stronger — and collaborate on music videos and visual arts, and release lovingly packaged physical music.
Then — insert the two words we’re obligated to include in any story about the past year or so — COVID-19 hit. Nick County pivoted to hosting a daily Instagram Live talk show; the artists still worked at writing, recording, and releasing new work. But nothing matched the spontaneity of jamming together live or feeding off an audience.
Now, after careful inspection of outdoor venues and planning for safety protocols with an extremely limited audience, County and crew are foraying back into an intimate — but socially distanced — outdoor live show this Friday, January 29. Held at the emerging Allapattah venue Smart Bites 2 Go (yes, weird name, but it started as a fast-casual, plant-forward lunch spot), the first Public Works showcase since 2019 will feature a selection of artists on the roster who have quarantined and social-podded together.
Masks are required when not eating or drinking, even when moving throughout the space, with staff checking for compliance. Tickets are limited to 100 in a space designed for 700, and County says he feels this small return to the public will be a safe release for fans and players alike after a year that’s ravaged live music.
“It’s pretty unique. You walk in through this auto-body shop and weave through cars, and then you’re in this beautiful, kind of regal jungle in Allapattah in an industrial zone. It feels like a quintessentially off-beat, unexpected, funky Miami experience,” he says. “It’s been hard. This is what we do. It’s a very special connection that people who come out to see music and musicians share.”
Everyone respectfully keeping at least six or more feet apart from one another can enjoy an only loosely planned evening of guest players performing their own music, each other’s, and maybe something a little new — again, in an ode to County’s idol, Jerry Jeff Walker.
“He would always do these birthday bashes that were pretty loose and open, and you never know what to expect, at this place called Armadillo Headquarters in Austin that was kind of an epicenter of this freak-folk scene,” County explains. He drew a page from that for the last Public Works show in person, in 2019, whose concept they dubbed “Unknown Legends.
“We’re taking a similar approach. The house band is made up of songwriters,” County goes on, describing Friday’s show. “It’s songwriters in the round with a full band.”
The Public Works flavor here, though, is that musically, the players involved go beyond twang and tears. They span what County describes as everything from outlaw country to psychedelic rock to power pop to "indie confessional" to a kind of Latin R&B — courtesy of Public Records cofounder Oly.
All of this, County says, functions as a prelude to what he expects will prove a busy year for Public Records of more releases, community outreach, and new signings, even under pandemic conditions. First up is a new pedal-steel-and-harmonica-laced single by Daniel Milewski, “On the Line,” due out the night of the birthday showcase.
With the industry itself in the throes of a shift that makes every artist their own A&R, publicist, content creator, and marketer, County hopes Public Works’ collective approach can lift like-minded independent artists.
“As artists ourselves, we feel a lot of those pain points. You work so hard on a thing, you get so close to it, and then you get to the end and you can’t really see the forest for the trees because you’re so in it,” he says. “At the end of the day, the artists on the label are my best friends, and I can put on my therapist hat or I can go over there to hang out.”
Public Works presents Nick County’s Birthday Bash and Fundraiser. With Nick County, Rick Moon, Oly, Corey Perez, Rachel Angel, Alejandro Elizondo, April Nicole, Juan Ledesma, Daniel Milewski, and more. 8 p.m. Friday, January 29, at Smart Bites 2 Go, 791 NW 20th St., Miami. Tickets cost $10 via linktr.ee/publicworksrec.
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