Everyone’s an Outlaw Now

Stomping along with other Portland old-timey acts, Power of County digs up the past. But don’t call it bluegrass.

Something’s different about the audience at the Power of County show on a recent Friday night at Billy Ray’s. Indie kids and cowboys tap shoes and boots in time to the scrap-yard rhythms from the washboard. Punks plod the floor during the murder ballads with a gleeful anger. Hippie girls sway with arms outstretched like a gospel choir to the achingly moaned love songs—right beside bikers swaying over their Pabsts.

Bluegrass fans are supposed to consign themselves to festivals, right? They’re not supposed to be younger than 30. And they’re definitely not supposed to stomp this hard.

“It’s kind of a funny phenomenon,” says guitarist and lead vocalist D. Rives Curtright of the band’s open appeal. “I’m not discounting new rock bands, but sometimes people look for something different. Everybody, sometimes, wants to go backwards.”

If you count yourself among such lost souls, this may be the story of your salvation: Curtright and his banjoist-guitarist bandmate, Matt Stark, partnered up two years ago when Stark was tending bar at Shanghai Tunnel, and Curtright “got drunk a lot at Shanghai Tunnel,” the singer says. At their first practice session the two discovered they both already knew about 30 traditional songs—enough to play their first show the following week at a Flying Fifteen bonfire party.

Since then, the two have entered the incestuous tribe of PDX country and bluegrass devotees who regularly trade positions as backup musicians for one another’s bands. They’ve also written 15 original songs in the olden style; one, “Ain’t Going Back to Jail,” was included on a split 7-inch with local monsters of country-folk Clampitt, Gaddis & Buck.

The record, laid down in a single night within a North Portland basement for $1,000 (plus the cost of a bottle of Wild Turkey), captures the same raw acoustic energy of both bands’ live shows. Clampitt, Gaddis & Buck weave the powerful but gentle blankets of harmony that so captivate their eclectic followers, but Power of County rips through the same sonic fabric and stitches it back together into a dirty, rugged quilt of banjo runs and synchronized howls that only barely resembles conventional bluegrass.

“We might not fit in at a bluegrass festival,” Stark says. “They’re more regimented. We like to think of the music we play as outlaw music, outlaw bluegrass. I think we have great licks—we’re just a lot dirtier. But hey, the most stompin’ songs are the ones that are rudest.”

Judging by the raging sea of cowboy hats and ponytails in front of the stage at Billy Ray’s, nobody’s taking offense.

Power of County plays with Clampitt, Gaddis & Dagger Friday at the Ash Street, 225 SW Ash St., 226-0430. 9 pm. Cover. 21+.

Originally published in Willamette Week