Believe it or not, there was a time when your favorite independent country music artists did not have a big circuit of festivals strewn across the map to play. Aside from touring around via local venues, the closest thing to playing a festival for them would be paying to play at SXSW in Austin, or showcasing in a hotel room at Folk Alliance. These days of course, on any given weekend in the summer there may be two or three festivals catering to independent country and roots artists, with patrons being offered a dizzying menu of decisions to make of where to point their nose.
But one of the very first festivals that saw the value and rising swell in independent country and roots was Pickathon just outside of Portland, Oregon. This was the place where the very careers of landmark artists such as Sturgill Simpson, The Avett Brothers, Lake Street Dive, and many more were launched. That may sound like hyperbole to you, but those who were there and witnessed these moments will swear to them. So will the artists and their representatives.
In 2022, Pickathon finally returned to the Pendarvis Farm on August 4th-7th in Happy Valley after an extended hiatus during the pandemic. With development encroaching upon the location like never before and other issues over the last few years, they decided to shake up their approach to the festival. Instead of having a few big stages mixed in with some smaller ones, they broke the festival site down into “neighborhoods.” This facilitated more shade underneath the iconic fir trees during the days, and more intimate performances to remember.
Pickathon has long since moved on from exclusively featuring independent country and roots music to covering all kinds of musical creators, but twang remains an emphasis of the festival. And while so many festivals get distracted by the big names making a splash, Pickathon takes the time to really get to know the artists they feature, and see the trajectory they’re headed in. They book the big flashy headliners before they take off, offering once-in-a-lifetime opportunities for attendees.
The last time Pickathon occurred in 2019, Tyler Childers played the festival on the weekend he released his album Country Squire, which was the same day Mike and the Moonpies surprised released Cheap Silver and Solid Country Gold, and also held court at Pickathon. The Moonpies went onto win Saving Country Music’s Album of the Year in 2019. This speaks to how “moments” blossom from the Pickathon experience.
In 2022, Mike and the Moonpies returned to Pickathon, still holding the title belt as the greatest live band in country music, though perhaps with a strong challenger now in the reunited Turnpike Troubadours (who played Pickathon in 2015). But the Moonpies did what they could to ward off all comers during their two Pickathon sets.
Speaking of spying artists on a meteoric rise and showcasing them before the rest of the world is clued in, Bella White blew a lot of minds with her debut album Just Like Leaving, including Rounder Records, who later signed the Canadian-born artist and re-released the record. Now she’s ready to take it to the next level with a new single called “The Way I Oughta Go” ahead of a new album. We very well may be talking about her being the “next one” sooner than later.
Another artist sliding under-the-radar but ready to blow up, Gabe Lee is quickly becoming many people’s favorite songwriter. From singer-songwriter stuff to full-blown high octane honky tonk, Gabe Lee can do it all. Why this guy isn’t playing festivals coast-to-coast at this point is preposterous, but it’s speaks to Pickathon’s keen awareness that they booked this guy that everyone else will be wanting a piece of in the coming years.
Margo Cilker also slides into that category of “to watch” up-and-comers. Crushing your poor little soul in one song after another, emulating the sounds of a distressed heart, Margo Cilker still somehow also makes it all sound so sweet. She luckily has been making the rounds of many of the West Coast festivals this summer, and has a few more in Bristol and AmericanaFest back east after she gets back from touring Europe later this month. Things are clicking for Margo.
Recently Saving Country Music gave a run down of the various subgenres of country music, and made sure to give special designation to country music’s earliest form often called Old-Time. Believe it or not, there are still younger artists out there who are not just inspired by these primitive folks tunes that became the building blocks of country, but are dedicated to keeping them alive in the modern context. Vivian Leva and Riley Calcagno are a duo that has done this while also mixing those influences with more modern styles. But when they meld into the group The Onlies with Sami Braman, it is pure Old-Time bliss.
There were many others performers at Pickathon in 2022, and unfortunately, yours truly couldn’t take the festival in this year since I was covering KOKEFEST back in Texas. Again, there are now more festivals than weekends in the calendar. But luckily, Saving Country Music corespondent and photographer Greg Homolka was there to keep up with all the country music doings, and snap some photos.
There were a few hiccups at Pickathon 2022, including the parking filling up early, and the founder Zale Schoenborn having to get out in the field himself and find more space. There were also issues with the live stream that allows people to participate in Pickaton even if they can’t be there. But the most important thing is that Pickathon returned after the drama of the last few years, and will hopefully continue to be a thriving festival that will give both a stage to many of the Pacific Northwest’s best country and roots musicians, a foothold for others from around the country, and whenever magic strikes, a launching pad for performers who deserve it.
All photos via Greg Homolka.
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