This Saturday marks the end of the line dance for Duke's Country Bar & Grill.
Co-owner Jeff Plew told his staff Tuesday night that the storied venue, which has acted as the local stomping grounds for country stars like Toby Keith and launching pad for Taylor Swift, had been sold to a medical office company for development. Plew, one of the partners behind Old Town's urban cowgirl-themed Dixie Tavern, would not divulge any further details about the new owners' plans for the structure at 14601 SE Division St., beyond stating his belief that they "will be good for the neighborhood."
Originally known as the Flower Drum, the early incarnation of Duke's functioned as the primary honky-tonk for the area's booming country scene back in the '60s. Though the biggest acts would play the far larger Division Street Corral up the street, the more intimate surroundings and full liquor license ensured a steady stream of Nashville icons from Hank Williams to Johnny Cash would call the Drum their home away from home. (Rumors of a sloe gin fizz pitcher special has fueled rather more intriguing speculations.)
Forced across the street once Fred Meyer purchased the original site in 1985, the bar's former emphasis on live music slowly shifted to embrace line-dancing and mechanical bulls. When Plew's group bought the venue in 2001, they briefly changed the format to Top 40 before realizing modern Nashville no longer relied upon regional signifiers. As Plew would say, they went back to country "once country dropped the western," and everyone from Lady Antebellum and Gretchen Wilson to Kacey Musgraves and Eric Church would grace their stage.
While Plew declined to blame any specific cause upon the decision to sell, he had been hit hard by the controversial 2013 sprinkler ordinance that forced the closure of several area dance clubs unable to satisfy the unexpected (and, many have argued, unwarranted) price of compliance. The expense of installing a sprinkler system at Duke's alone reportedly cost $94K. "I'm not some guy from Las Vegas rolling around in a three-piece suit," Plew told WW in 2016, "I can't afford this."
Nevertheless, the 450-person capacity club continued to pack in line-dancing devotees each weekend. Beyond the associated luminaries that once climbed the stage, Duke's served a clientele otherwise ignored in Portland. Plew, a Portland native who frequented the upper Division honky-tonks during their heyday, understands its importance, but prefers to remember the high points.
"Please don't make it like Portland destroyed another great bar, because that's not true," he said. "The country music community lost a great spot, but look at all the positive things. We've been in business for 14 years. We donated over $175,000 to Doernbecher Children's Hospital and over $50,000 to the police and fire departments of different cities. It's been a great ride. We're heading into the sunset with hat held high."
See Related: The Last Cowboy Bar in East Portland.