Wednesday, September 5, 2012

History Pub: Oregon's Country Music Heritage

If you're like many Portlanders, you claim an affinity for all music genres but country, and maybe metal. Yeah, me too. However, I am a serious history nut, and one of my favorite events each month is History Pub—a monthly informal lecture co-sponsored by Oregon Historical Society, the Holy Names Heritage Center, and McMenamins. Usually it's held at Kennedy School in NE Portland, but each August they put something bigger together, and temporarily move the event to the Baghdad on SE Hawthorne.

This month the topic was Oregon's country music heritage. Does Oregon have a country music heritage? I wondered. We must—and the Baghdad is a lot easier for me to get to than Kennedy School, so I made my way down to learn all about it on August 28th.

Peter Blecha of the Experience Music Project opened the evening with a short presentation (with many photos!) introducing a brief chronology of country-like music in the region. Roughly, bands were established as far back as the 1800s in logging camps, eventually morphing into old timey groups. One particular series of photos profiled one of these groups: Laam's Happy Hayseeds. Over the years they eventually dropped the "Laam's" from their name, but managed to stay together and even recorded a couple of records—one of the first string bands to do so.

As western-themed movies and television shows rose in popularity, so too did country music. The Portland area boasted several country music clubs by the early 1950s, and a notable country radio station in Vancouver. As it turns out, Willie Nelson was a DJ at KVAN early in his career. The station was operated by music promoter Pat Mason, who later went on to work on a tour with Elvis—before he was big. An ex-lumberjack named Buzz Martin released two albums in the late 1960s that resonated with country fans and loggers alike. Then in the 1970s, college kids discovered bluegrass, and bands like the Sawtooth Mountain Boys and Puddle City were en vogue.

After Blecha's rundown of country music in the northwest, Beth Harrington moderated a panel discussion. Harrington is an independent filmmaker, currently wrapping up a documentary about the Carter-Cash family that has given her close access to people integral to country music history. Joining her as panelists were Bobby Gibson (guitar), Ray "Skipper" Montee (steel guitar), and Arty Lange (songwriter). All the panelists were involved in the country music scene in the 1950s—almost all of them had worked for Heck Harper, and spent the next half hour sharing stories and laughs with the audience.

Instead of winding down, the panel then transitioned over to their instruments and began an hour or so of musical nostalgia. Beginning with the fiddle tune that opened the Heck Harper Show, the band played old-time country songs and told jokes. In one visual gag, a band member donned a prop on his head that made him look like Willie Nelson, and launched into an impersonation. A pretty spot-on one at that.

Despite my former statement of not seeing myself as a country fan, there were plenty of songs the band played that I knew and loved. Songs by Hank Williams (who came to Portland for the first time in the 1940s, looking for shipyard work), Bill Monroe, and of course Johnny Cash. Ray Montee did his best "Steel Guitar Rag" and the band had everyone clapping during "Orange Blossom Special."As I sat, I realized maybe I hadn't realized I am maybe a bigger fan of older country than I originally thought. After all, one of my favorite musicians is known for his country-fried rock, and my inner raging feminist is in love with Loretta Lynn. (But please, I still can't handle that pop-country crap.)

As we neared the third hour of History Pub, Larry Wilder and the Stumptown Stars took the stage. After two songs the veterans started joining them, and the result was a country music mega-band that seemed to work together effortlessly, as if this wasn't the first time they had shared a stage. Sadly, there were banjo jokes ("What do you call throwing a banjo into a dumpster? Perfect pitch!") but I got a couple of glorious, glorious banjo songs before Wilder decided nobody could hear him.

If there is ever another music-related History Pub, I highly recommend you attend. You may find yourself smarter, more self-aware, and more cultured by the end of the evening!

Editor's note: Beth Harrington is a friend of the blog and supporter of the "Patron Haint" project.  Look for an interview with her as "The Winding Stream" gets a little closer to completion.

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