It's a random Tuesday in July, and the center of the universe for local country music fans is a truck stop situated a few hundred feet from the evening softball games at Delta Park in North Portland. At Ponderosa Lounge, a bar and grill attached to the Jubitz Travel Center, Kacey Musgraves, a fresh-faced 24-year-old singer-songwriter from Nashville, is making a rare appearance in the midst of her summer tour opening shows for stadium-sized superstar Kenny Chesney.
The show is a big enough deal that, even on a work night, the wait for a drink is at least a half-hour. To join in the spirited sing-alongs of Musgraves' delicate anthems of self-reliance, you have to jostle for space with dozens of young women in short dresses and cowboy boots and the haggard truck drivers enjoying both the entertainment and the eye candy.
Aside from the fact that she is one of the year's breakout stars, Musgraves' intimate concert is also noteworthy because, in a town that prides itself on being a music hub, contemporary country tends to get short shrift. Sure, Portland boasts two FM radio stations devoted to the latest Nashville hits, but what it doesn't offer is any kind of middle ground for artists and fans.
Summertime is often the exception, with country stars new and old stopping by the many county fairs within a short drive from Portland. (There's also the Willamette Country Music Festival, featuring headliners Carrie Underwood and Brad Paisley, which comes to Brownsville this week.) But the rest of the year, you either get lucky enough to catch a rising star at Ponderosa or Duke's Country Bar and Grill in outer Southeast Portland, or wait until they're successful enough to fill the Rose Garden or Sleep Country Amphitheater.
The upside to the lack of midlevel talent making its way to the area, though, is that there's plenty of work for local country acts. Weekends at some of the many country bars in the area—Ponderosa, the Silver Star Saloon in Vancouver, Coyote's in Hillsboro, Bushwhackers in Tualatin—are packed with a rotating cast of bands and artists that perform renditions of current radio hits and vintage favorites. In the opinion of one of those artists, singer-songwriter Carrie Cunningham, there might actually be too many.
"It does get frustrating," she says. "There's an oversaturation right now, so in order to really stand out, you have to have the musicians behind you, you have to know how to entertain, and you have to know how to write your own songs."
Cunningham is among a handful of local artists who put an emphasis on original material. There's enough raw talent and emotion in her work that she could probably make a name for herself in the larger country scene if she were to relocate to Nashville, but she insists the benefits of remaining in the Pacific Northwest far outweigh any potential ground she might gain in Music City.
"Guitar players and singers are a dime a dozen down there," she says. "You don't get paid except in tips. No matter how rowdy and generous the out-of-towners are, some people still only come home with $40 a night."
The rest of the country-music scene around Portland is made up of bands like Country Backroads or Panther Creek, acts trying to fill the niche of bringing modern and classic tunes to keep local fans satiated until the next big show rolls through town. The trick is to make sure you're playing to the room.
"Some of the newer places [have] a much younger crowd, and they just want the stuff that's on the radio right now," says Panther Creek vocalist Laura Pettis-Clark. "The Ponderosa's fun, though, because you get a lot of folks from the South passing through, so the music they're looking for is a little older."
At Musgraves' show, fans get a little bit of everything. Opening sets by Cunningham and local band Rodeo Rose run the gamut from Bobbie Gentry to Miranda Lambert, while Musgraves takes care of the contemporary side of things. Through it all, the crowd sings along, matching the verve of the folks onstage. The enthusiasm is understandable. Once summer is over, it may be a long time before they get the chance to sing that loud again.