No one had to twist Aaron Watson’s arm to get him to perform at the La Pine Rodeo in June.

The Texas-born country singer, who became the first independent male artist to hit No. 1 on Billboard’s Top Country Albums chart in 2015 with his record “The Underdog,” has ties to Oregon — his wife, Kim, hails from Roseburg. But beyond that, he’s noticed an affinity for country music in the state.

“I think it’s a lot like any state,” he said in an interview before his June 29 show. “Obviously you wouldn’t think of Portland being a big country music hub, but we’ve played Portland; we’ve had good shows there. But when you get outside of the bigger cities, there’s a lot of country folks that live in Oregon. … Oregon first of all is such a beautiful state — I mean, you know, lots of hunting and fishing and outdoor living. Those kind of things and country music obviously go hand in hand.”

Outlaw country singer Red Shahan, who opened for Cody Jinks at a sold-out show at Midtown Ballroom on May 5, is another Texas artist with a rapidly expanding reach. In an interview with The Bulletin, he mentioned the West Coast is a hotbed for the genre.

“Of course here in the United States, it seems to have a very popular Western movement — Midwest to the West Coast up around the Southeastern United States, it does really well,” Shahan said.

Watson and Shahan were part of a country-music boom that hit Central Oregon this year, including a handful of shows at Midtown Ballroom and a new concert series at Oregon Spirit Distillers.

The mainstream version of the genre would seem a perfect fit for the region, given Nashville’s obsessions with rural Americana, the outdoors and character studies of gritty, hard-working folks who could have come straight out of the High Desert.

But while other roots genres, such as bluegrass, have found strongholds in Central Oregon, mainstream country has lagged behind until recently. The boom is largely thanks to Bend Radio Group’s country station KSJJ-FM, which ramped up its show offerings this year after testing the waters in previous years with artists such as Colt Ford, A Thousand Horses, Craig Morgan and Russell Dickerson, who played at the station’s 35th anniversary bash last year. Those shows’ popularity led the station to want to host more, said Bend Radio Group owner Jim Gross.

KSJJ leads the way

In addition to co-presenting the country offerings at this year’s Deschutes County Fair (Big & Rich and Gary Allan), the station launched a concert series at Oregon Spirit Distillers in June with Canadian group High Valley, and continuing with Whiskey Myers (July 21), Dwight Yoakam (Aug. 23) and Clay Walker (Sept. 11). The station also co-promoted Watson’s concert at the La Pine Rodeo on June 29, and partnered with Midtown Events to help promote sold-out shows featuring Granger Smith and Jinks at Midtown Ballroom earlier this year. Country-rap crossover artist Ford is up next at the venue Nov. 2.

“I think we got more comfortable with doing country shows over the last several years — that’s certainly been part of it,” Gross said. “We hired Kayja Buhmann as our events manager, and she has an affinity and appreciation for it. … It’s just kind of over a period of time, we started doing more of them, and every time we did it, it worked really well.”

Concert attendanceshows this. According to numbers supplied to the Bulletin by KSJJ, Jinks’ and Granger Smith’s concerts sold out at about 1,100 attendees each. In the case of Jinks’ May 5 show, tickets sold out March 29, the day they went on sale, according to a Facebook post by Midtown Events. High Valley’s June 16 kick-off show for KSJJ’s country series had more than 850 attendees, and Yoakam’s show sold out July 11 (capacity at Oregon Spirit Distillers is 1,000, according to Bart Platt, director of promotions and events for Bend Radio Group).

Nationally, country is holding strong as well. In 2017, five of the top 20 North American concert tours were country acts, according to pollstar.com. Additionally, of the six tours that racked up 1 million or more ticket sales according to Pollstar’s data, three were tours by country acts — Garth Brooks, Florida-Georgia Line and Luke Bryan.

“We could just see there was a big hole in what was being produced and for who, and we have a big group of listeners that just are trying to get to go to shows and stuff,” Platt said. “We figured out pretty early there was a big cutoff between charging $60 for a show at Les Schwab (Amphitheater) or the Moda Center (in Portland), or $150 for a music festival ticket. Kind of the sweet spot was that $20-to-$30 ticket price for a local show. People want to come out and have good times.”

A growing demand

An enthusiastic crowd decked out in the country uniform — old jeans, cowboy hats and boots, beer in hand — greeted High Valley and former Portland duo Cloverdayle on June 16. In between some frantic two-stepping— High Valley held a dance-off early in its set— audience members expressed excitement about the new series.

“We need more country!” Lacey Butts, 31, of Redmond, said. “There’s been a decent amount (of country shows), but we can always use more.”

Tyler Tanner, 27, an avid music lover and concert-goer who traveled to the show from Eugene, said he’s noticed the genre’s popularity increasing all over the state.

“It seems like in Oregon in general there’s a lot more country shows coming,” he said. “Country concerts overall are the best concerts in my opinion. They’re the most upbeat, fun. You just want to have a good time.”

Platt also has noticed an increase in country acts coming to the Northwest. He cited several large country music festivals in the region, including the Willamette Country Music Festival, the Watershed Music Festival at the Gorge Amphitheater in George, Washington, and the Oregon Jamboree in Sweet Home.

“Within a few hours’ driving of us, you can almost see every artist you could possibly imagine,” Platt said. “Not to mention the Matthew Knight Arena in Eugene and the Moda Center in Portland have been bringing in an increasingly large amount of country acts. So there’s definitely a surge in the live music scene and how many acts are on tour, and on tour specifically throughout the Northwest region.”

Historically, country fans relied on the Deschutes County Fair for shows. “The Devil Went Down to Georgia” singer Charlie Daniels was the first major country act to headline the fair, said Ross Rogers, fair coordinator since 2002. Since then the fair has hosted at least one country act per year; in its current four-concert configuration, it usually hosts two country acts, a classic-rock act and a more pop-oriented act.

“Our country concerts are actually king for popularity each year at the fair,” Rogers said. “Styx, backing up, was a huge classic rock act for us a few years back, but other than that, two years ago Trace Adkins in 2016 set the record for attendance, and he’s an older artist. It was a little over 12,000 people. Then we had Old Dominion, who is now the hottest country band — not act, but band, a real group — come last year, and they shattered the record.”

The wild west of Central Oregon

Not just any country show will work in Central Oregon. The cost to hire country musicians has gone up in the past decade as the genre moved into more pop territory, Platt said. Huge artists such as Brooks, Tim McGraw, Faith Hill or Kenny Chesney are probably out of reach.

“I’ve been doing this for 10-plus years now, and five years before that in a different market, and country artists were always the most affordable,” Platt said. “That was the genre wheelhouse you would go for because you could get an act people had heard of and not have to spend $50,000 to $100,000. Obviously all prices have gone up, but about 10 years ago when country music started becoming more pop music, so did their demand and price tags (go up). Kenny Chesney is a half-million-dollar artist. Old Dominion, who played the Deschutes County Fair for free — or not for free, but nobody had to pay to come see them perform just (one year) ago — they’re demanding $150,000 to perform a concert.”

Beyond that, the artist usually needs to be one KSJJ plays on air for the show to be successful. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the more rocking country artists do well with Bend and Central Oregon audiences that love dancing and beer-drinking. Outlaw country acts such as Jinks, Granger Smith and Willie Nelson — whose show with Alison Krauss at Les Schwab Amphitheater on Aug. 4 is sold out— fit well with the “wild west” spirit that still dominates in rural Central Oregon.

“I think because of that, we’re getting a lot of that younger demographic that wants to come out for shows,” Platt said. “We’ll have a totally different audience at Colt Ford than we will at Gary Allan or Clay Walker. (They have) equally passionate fans and they’ll probably both sell really, really well, it’s just different people showing up. And that’s what we’re trying to do, is create something for everybody.”

Other venues

While KSJJ has been involved in most of the area’s country offerings, other venues are starting to jump in. The Tower Theatre will host classic country band Riders in the Sky on July 22; country rocker Uncle Kracker on Sept. 1; and Carlene Carter, daughter of June Carter Cash, on Oct. 7.

Bend’s historic theater tends to go for more established acts in the genre. Recent country shows there included the Vince Gill-led supergroup The Time Jumpers, Travis Tritt and Clint Black, as well as less radio-oriented acts such as Nitty Gritty Dirt Band.

“(Nitty Gritty Dirt Band co-founder) John McEuen came back on his own just recently, and he’s very much an entertainer until the day he dies,” said Ray Solley, executive director of the Tower Theatre. “These are people that have the music and heritage and the body of work in their bones, in their blood and in their voice. We have found that if you try to bring in an artist who is well known from one hit or two hits, then that’s more — that’s a more difficult sell than if you bring in somebody who has been performing for the last 10 or 15 or 20, 25, 30 years.”

Conversely, Les Schwab Amphitheater has struggled to bring in country acts and audiences over the years, in part due to competition from many of the aforementioned large country-music festivals in Oregon, according to venue director Marney Smith. In the past, mainstream country artists such as Keith Urban, Luke Bryan and Sugarland have performed there, but those are exceptions that occurred earlier in the venue’s history.

“Buying a country act is different from buying the other types of acts that we are typically able to get to come to the venue,” Smith said. “The price is higher and the competition is greater to get those acts, and then we don’t see in return the ticket sales reflect the prices as readily as we do for the other acts.”

The fight for outdoor music

The increase in country shows also coincides with the re-ignition of a long-burning debate over the city’s noise ordinance last year. In August 2017, as mediation sessions initiated by the city between the River West Neighborhood Association and Bend Radio Group were still ongoing, Bend Radio Group circulated an online petition to keep outdoor music alive in Central Oregon. After the sessions ended last year, the council voted in February to limit temporary change of occupancy permits to three per year per venue. The Century Center, where Bend Radio Group holds annual concerts, was the only venue to consistently apply for more than three such permits per year.

Due in part to the debate and ongoing construction on 14th Street, Bend Radio Group decided to move all its concerts — the country series and its usual alternative rock series — to Oregon Spirit Distillers. The venue is not considered to be an enclosed space and therefore isn’t subject to the same permitting requirement, according to Joe McClay, the city’s building division manager.

“We decided to not wage that particular battle at that particular time and move the shows over,” Gross said. “But I think we’ll be back in some form or fashion at Century Center either end of the year or next year.”

— Reporter: 541-617-7814, bmcelhiney@bendbulletin.com

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