Southeast's Country Music scene unites musicians, dancers, fans
Walk by the Landmark Saloon on S.E. Division Street on a Wednesday night, and you may feel like you've been transported back to the days of honky-tonk clubs and singing cowboys. High-energy western swing music wafts out an open door. Inside, men in Stetson hats and women in cowboy boots swirl across a small dance floor.
There's no stage – just an alcove at the front where musicians play the instruments of America's past: Upright bass; fiddle; pedal steel guitar. A rodeo-themed Pendleton blanket hangs on the wall, while an old cow's skull hollowly keeps watch from the rafters. Busy bartenders serve drinks with down-home names like Western Lager and Tumbleweed Tea.
This happens to be Whiskey Wednesday, a weekly occurrence at the Landmark, at 4847 S.E. Division Street. It's one of several places where country music thrives in Inner Southeast Portland.
"Country is kind of hip right now," remarked Tim Hawk, co-owner of the Landmark. He's not referring to modern Country Music, but rather an older nostalgia-driven sound. The bands he books are playing songs from artists like Johnny Cash, Merle Haggard, and Patsy Cline – music many of today's adults originally heard as children in their parents' homes.
"My grandpa would turn on the radio, and have that AM station playing all this old stuff," Hawk recalled. "It brings back so many good memories."
Locals also turn out for old-school Country Music shows at Foster-Powell's Starday Tavern, 6517 S.E. Foster Road. Owner Justin Amrine is often found tending bar while his pug, Genghis, totters around seeking attention from the club's regulars. Amrine considers Starday "truly a neighborhood bar", and much of the music he features is hyper-local.
"It comes from Southeast [Portland]. Most of the musicians either live here, or have a practice space here," Amrine said. "Southeast is really incredibly saturated with talented human beings."
This Country Music scene draw crowds of all ages. Longtime local musician Pete Krebs commented that when he performs, the fans of his band – the Catnip Brothers – range from their twenties on up into their eighties. He appreciates the diversity: "We don't see people from other generations in social settings too often, so it gives us an opportunity to find commonality."
Tom Lapsley is an 83-year-old regular at local Country Music shows, and is one of the vintage-style swing dancers who follow Country bands wherever they're playing around town. Lapsley often brings his 22-year-old granddaughter along with him. He's such a regular at Whiskey Wednesdays that bartenders and patrons save his favorite bar stool for him. He appreciates that Southeast Portland has such a lively Country Music scene.
"The music here is just awesome. You go out any night of the week here and there's someone good playing," Lapsley observed, adding that dancing is "good cardio, and you don't have to spend a lot of money."
Venues like Landmark and Starday rarely charge a cover, hoping instead to bring in money at the bar. Musicians aren't getting rich playing this music, either, according to lifelong Southeast Portland resident Jenn "Huck" Huckins. She's played fiddle for acts with names like Barn Door Slammers and Honky Tonk Union. Huckins told THE BEE that only about 5% of her fellow local musicians make a living from their music. Bands set out tip jars at performances in hopes fans will show appreciation. They also sell merchandise, like T-shirts and CDs.
For Huckins, musical motivation transcends money. When she talks about performing she uses words like joy, creativity, and adrenaline. She explained, "It's an absolute rush. There's energy between you and the crowd, or between you and the dancers, and certainly with your bandmates. It's potent stuff. We had some Barn Door Slammer shows where there were people standing on stools, pounding on the ceiling! That is a ball! People show up, and they want to have fun with you."
Another local Country Music insider is Ezra Meredith. This home-grown Southeast Portlander runs The Deer Lodge recording studio and record label out of his house in the Woodstock area. He's produced albums for Portland bands Countryside Ride and Drunken Prayer, among others.
In the summertime, The Deer Lodge hosts live music shows with a backyard party atmosphere, usually announced a few weeks in advance on its Facebook page. These gatherings arose organically, Meredith remarked, out of his love for Country Music and his desire to share it with his community.
"The neighbors really seem to enjoy it," he said, recalling only one complaint over the many summers he's been hosting these events.
Meredith said he's watched Country Music grow in popularity the past few years. Krebs has seen the same, and credits the genre's increased coverage in the media. "The Ken Burns documentary [on Public TV] and Cocaine & Rhinestones [podcast] were really kind of instrumental, I think, in reminding people how much they like this music – or at least introducing people to versions of Country Music and rural sounds that are really drastically different from what they hear on the radio nowadays."
A little farther beyond Inner Southeast Portland, musicians play country music regularly at Strum Guitars, Laurelthirst Tavern and Ponderosa Lounge. Other bars host this genre on occasion. Nationally-known acts appear at Aladdin Theater in Brooklyn, and similarly sizable venues.
For information about upcoming shows, the bands and businesses included in this article suggest following their social media channels. Local Country Music event announcements also appear in a public Facebook group called "Portland Hillbilly! Rockabilly! Country! and Swing!"
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