It's a sweltering Saturday evening in Portland, and Chad Williams is onstage at Duke's Country Bar & Grill on Southeast Division Street, in front of a wall-sized American flag, singing what everyone's thinking—at least, everyone wearing Stetson hats and Wrangler jeans, and probably the members of the bachelorette party sipping cocktails through penis-shaped straws.
"Feels like a good night for a walk in the dirt/ A good night for a dive in the lake/ A good night for a roll in the hay/ Hey hey heyyyyyyyyy!"
A local boy with scruffy facial hair and a long ponytail pulled through a mesh hat, Williams embodies the modern-country gospel of trucks, Milwaukee's Best and girls in bikinis, and while his heavy twang and hard-rock riffs might seem out of step with the culture of Portland proper, they're right at home at Duke's, country's last remaining temple east of I-205. The list of names who've stood on that same stage read like a CMAs guest list: Miranda Lambert, Gretchen Wilson, Lady Antebellum, Eric Church, Florida Georgia Line, Kacey Musgraves. On Halloween night in 2006, a young Taylor Swift opened for Floridian heartthrob Jake Owen, and the crush she developed that evening purportedly inspired her early crossover single, "Sparks Fly." Sometimes, the biggest stars in the business stop in while passing through on tour, just to grab a drink.
"Toby Keith walked through the front door like he was a regular customer," says Duke's co-owner Jeff Plew. "I know a lot of the record reps, and I said, 'Why didn't you call us?' They're like, 'Toby just wanted to come down.'"
A native of Northeast Portland, Plew spent his youth riding the bus to this part of town, back when it actually looked like the country. In the mid-20th century, this stretch of Division between 146th and 171st avenues, with Division Street Corral at one end and the Flower Drum on the other, was a shitkicker paradise, drawing the likes of Johnny Cash, Hank Williams and George Strait. As the area developed, though, whatever country scene Portland once had was forced to even farther edges of the city, to the Ponderosa near Delta Park and Bushwhackers in Tualatin. A fire closed the Corral in 1979. In the '80s, Fred Meyer bought the property where the Flower Drum once stood. The owners changed the name to the Drum and moved across the street, where it continued to serve a dwindling clientele through the turn of the millennium.
In 2001, Plew and his partners at Concept Entertainment bought the Drum, initially shifting the focus to Top 40. At the time, country was at a low ebb of popularity, and Plew didn't see it as a viable format. Gradually, he began to notice a shift in the culture at large. "You saw the integration of rock into country, and that's when it became mainstream again," he says. "Before, it used to be just country and western. Now the genre is wide."
In 2004, Plew rebranded his business as Duke's, putting in a large dance floor and filling up the calendar with line-dancing classes. (He also had a mechanical bull, but he sold it after insurance rates got too high.) Among the various beer swag on the walls, a neon sign reading "Welcome to the Drum" nods to the building's history.
Chad Williams' brand of country might not be recognizable to those who frequented the Drum and the Division Street Corral in the '60s, '70s and '80s. But for Plew, being able to return some semblance of the music that once defined the neighborhood is a point of pride.
"It's the passion of my life," he says. "To go there as a 21-, 22-year-old, and then turn it around and make it a full circle back to country was exciting for me."
GO: Duke's Country Bar & Grill is at 14601 SE Division St., 503-760-1400, dukesbar.com. 5 pm-midnight Tuesday-Wednesday, 5 pm-2:30 am Thursday-Sunday. Live music Tuesdays and most weekends, DJs and dancing on Wednesdays and Thursdays.