Last April, Southeast Division Street honky-tonk Duke's Country Bar & Grill closed its doors for good. Notable for being one of Portland's only proper establishments for line dancing and early-career appearances by Taylor Swift and Toby Keith, its closure reinforced an already strong case that Portland is not a country music town.
That hasn't stopped Chuck Westmoreland from making some of the most raw and disarming country rock the region has heard in years. Formerly the frontman of synth-pop outfit the Kingdom, Westmoreland pivoted on his self-titled 2016 record to the role of a damaged yet hopeful songwriter who found inspiration in heartbreak, his wife's battle with cancer and city-slicker dreams of life on the range.
On his latest, Long Winter Rodeo, the subject matter remains forthright and familial, but the tone and composition have shifted ever so slightly. Shuffling balladry has given way to incendiary bar rock that recalls Jason Molina, Lucero and other crossover-minded rock acts with a residual twang.
Opener "Sharp Rocks" sets the stage with stomping roots rock that's punched up with smoky organs and staccato pianos. "Prisoners" employs a high and lonesome lead to underscore Westmoreland's existential conundrum of whether he's really living or just dragging loved ones around.
The few songs on Long Winter Rodeo that turn down the distortion highlight Westmoreland's dusty vocals and matter-of-fact delivery. But tracks like "Long Winter Rodeo" and the precariously titled "Denim Tears" feel like foils for the louder bits, rather than the ambling AM gold they aspire to be.
In the context of the Nashville machine—whether it's the radio-baiting dross of Florida Georgia Line or the outsider antics of Sturgill Simpson—Westmoreland feels more like a rock guy with a flare for country's themes. Standouts like "Sharp Rocks" and "Mystic" have DNA that's similar to latter works from Counting Crows and the Wallflowers—a less twangy but equally astute understanding of how to capitalize on country's profound influence on rock.
Still, Westmoreland's earnest, hard-working approach to honoring one of America's most staid genres is all but guaranteed to win the favor of the folks who'd normally shy away.
SEE IT: Chuck Westmoreland plays Mississippi Studios, 3939 N Mississippi Ave., with Roselit Bone and An American Forrest, on Thursday, June 7. 8 pm. $5. 21+.