When it started 15 years ago, Pickathon, Portland's annual roots-music festival, had little interest in anything contemporary. As it's grown in both size and scope, finally embracing music created after 1950, the actual "picking" has been overshadowed by big-name indie buzz acts. But that doesn't mean the festival has, in any sense, abandoned its roots. Augmenting of-the-moment headliners with local and regional fixtures from around the country who rarely make it out West, Pickathon, more than any other festival in the country, is rife with opportunities for discovery. Here are some artists you should make an effort to stumble upon this year.
Dale Watson: Austin, Texas
Regular gig: Chicken Shit Bingo at Ginny's Little Longhorn Saloon.
As I sat at a bus stop in Austin earlier this year, waiting to be chauffeured into the Doritos-encrusted heart of South by Southwest, the couple next to me pulled out a portable speaker and began playing honky-tonk so pure and antiquated it sounded like it was coming directly from an aged 45. They spent the trip downtown regaling me about Watson, a true country troubadour with a snowy white quiff that every Austinite eventually encounters, usually at Ginny's, where every Sunday he soundtracks a game of bingo determined not by pingpong balls but by the mercurial bowels of a live chicken. No word if he's bringing any poultry with him to Portland, though his hard-drinking throwback country should suffice.
The Cactus Blossoms Minneapolis
Regular gig: Until recently, every Monday at the Turf Club, a historic Twin Cities country bar.
If you were to look at a press photo of the Cactus Blossoms, youâd assume the brotherly duo at their core were the two grizzled old cowboys brandishing the lap steel and fiddle, so authentic is their take on midcentury Western swing. In truth, the group is led by fresh-faced youngâuns Page Burkum and Jack Torrey, who honed their high-lonesome harmonies for a year and a half at a weekly residency that just ended in July, and actually convinced veteran players Mike Russell and Randy Broughten (plus standup bassist Liz Draper) to back them up.
Cedric Watson & Bijou Creole Lafayette, La.
Regular gig: Blue Moon Saloon, where Watson recorded his Grammy-nominated 2010 live album.
A native of Southeast Texas before making the pilgrimage to Louisiana, 29-year-old accordionist-fiddler Watson connects the rhythm of zydeco back to its African origins, which has won him acclaim and also confusion. In a review of his live CD, an Amazon customer writes, âBy the time I got to the last track, I had no idea what I was listening to.â Thatâs a ringing endorsement, if you ask me.
Ginny Hawker Tanner, W. Va.
Regular gig: Teaching singing lessons out of her Appalachian mountain home.
Music is Hawkerâs career, though thatâs mostly because itâs inextricable from her everyday life: The tour dates listed on her website include a âHawker Family Gatheringâ and the âHawker Family Thanksgiving.â Her repertoire of pre-war Southern ballads and bluegrass standards were practically gifted to her at birth via her father, a Baptist minister, singer and storyteller. Students pay $500 to study with her and husband-collaborator Tracy Schwarz for two days, and it is, unsurprisingly, an immersive experience, with part of the time spent listening to old records, jamming with local musicians and taking dips in the Hawker Family Outdoor Spa.
Caleb Klauder Country Band Portland
Regular gig: Impromptu jam sessions at the Moon and Sixpence in the Hollywood District.
Even if Pickathon werenât within driving distance of his home, Klauder would still get an invite. Heâs Portlandâs own homegrown roots-music icon, having spent the â90s stoking out Pacific Northwest college kids with Calobo and the last decade-plus splitting time between his purebred Country Band and the Foghorn Stringband, which serves as the house band for Pickathonâs longest-lasting tradition: the annual opening night square dance.
SEE IT: Pickathon is at Pendarvis Farm, 16581 SE Hagen Road, Happy Valley, on Friday-Sunday, Aug. 2-4. $130 per day, $260 weekend admission. See pickathon.com for schedule.