Back in 2019, two guys originally from Eastern Oregon named Rian Beach and Chad Colwell decided they wanted to try something enterprising. Seeing the rise of independent country and Americana acts happening all over the United States, they wanted to help the music’s Western expansion into the Pacific Northwest and also throw on one hell of a party. They called it the Jackalope Jamboree and put it in Pendleton—a town three hours east of Portland, and a place decidedly more Western than Pacific.
Though the town’s population is only about 17,000, Pendleton serves as the cultural epicenter of not just Eastern Oregon, but of surrounding areas in Washington State, Idaho, and beyond. That first year the Jackalope Jamboree put American Aquarium, Shane Smith and the Saints, Jaime Wyatt, and other national acts on the stage, and mixed them with more local artists like Tylor & the Train Robbers and James Dean Kindle.
The formula worked, and the Jackalope Jamboree expanded the event to two days in 2021 (2020 was canceled due to COVID), and then expanded to three days in 2022, booking acts like Sierra Ferrell before she exploded, and the Turnpike Troubadours as they forged their major comeback. The festival has also continued to book Shane Smith and the Saints as one of their standing headliners every year as the band has gone from upstarts from Texas to national headliners.
One of the reasons independent acts have been rising in popularity to rival and even surpass their mainstream counterparts in popularity is due in part to events like the Jackalope Jamboree seeding interest in the music beyond it’s original borders. They’ve also helped to shepherd local and regional talent to a national audience by featuring these up-and-comers on the same stage as the bigger names. In 2023, independent country fans from 25 different states and four Canadian provinces all made the trek to Pendleton, OR to attend the Jackalope Jamboree June 22nd to the 24th.
When Ryan Bingham took the stage on Friday night, nobody had to tell him about the importance of Pendleton. Having competed in rodeo competitions earlier in life, Bingham knew the town as the home of the Pendleton Round-Up, which is the 113-year-old rodeo that has won the PCRA’s Large Outdoor Rodeo of the Year Award six of the last eight years. The Jackalope Jamboree is held at the Happy Canyon Arena, which is located next to the Pendleton Round-Up grounds.
A trip to Pendleton is like taking a step back in time. It’s the home of the world’s famous Pendleton Woolen Mills that makes heirloom quality wool blankets and other wares that were used as trading barter with Native Americans. It’s also the home of Hamley’s, which is the oldest operating Western store in the United States, and has made saddles and such for the likes of Buffalo Bill and Roy Rogers.
Pendleton as a town is worth visiting all on its own, with lots of cool Western shops and restaurants downtown, the Wildhorse Casino just east of town on the Umatilla Indian Reservation, and other outdoor activities to be had in the surrounding area.
With the emergence of big independent music megafestivals in tourist destinations, the Jackalope Jamboree offers something a little different. Though Pendleton is definitely a destination itself, it has an affordability aspect that other destination festivals fail to offer. Since the Pendleton Round-Up happens there every year, there is ample hotel rooms and camping options to accommodate everyone, without attendees having to break the bank.
Also, the grounds aren’t divided out into half a dozen tiers of ticket upgrades and VIP perks to the point where generally admission attendees won’t get within 50 yards of their favorite artist, and are ultimately watching on a projection screen. There are some reserved seating options for those who want them, but with the big grandstand, there is a seat for everyone, and not a bad seat in the house, while the front of the stage is full of the most enthusiastic fans as opposed to those of the wealthiest means.
And of course the biggest reason to come to the Jackalope Jamboree is the music. Ryan Bingham is one of the many artists in independent country and roots who’s received a boost from the show Yellowstone, especially since Bingham appears as the recurring character “Walker.” But Friday night in Pendleton, there was no fiction. It was all Ryan Bingham, with the Texas Gentlemen putting a charge behind his music and making the crowd in the Pendleton grandstands erupt and stomp their feet on the towering bleachers in thunderous ovations.
Shane Smith and the Saints have been one of the headliners at the Jackalope Jamboree every year of the festival. Just as the festival has grown, so have Shane Smith and the Saints, making them a major draw throughout the region, with fans familiar with all of their songs singing along, including a family that dressed up in bib overalls to pay tribute to the band’s fiddle player Bennett.
Though the Jackalope Jamboree didn’t make a big deal of it and it wasn’t even really planned, the opening day (Thursday) featured all women on the main stage. Margo Cilker from nearby Enterprise, Oregon opened the show, followed up by insurgent Kentucky artist Kelsey Waldon, with the night headlined by Margo Price. At one point during Margo Cilker’s opening set, all three women came out to sing together.
Margo Price has become somewhat of a polarizing figure in country music in these political tumultuous times. But anyone being honest with themselves has to continue to mark her as a great live performer. Her Thursday night headlining set was certainly a showcase for this as she made the case for herself and other women to be given more of these headlining slots.
The set started with Margo’s daughter Ramona coming out on stage to play with her, immediately endearing Margo and Ramona to the crowd. Few bring as much energy as Margo Price does to her live performances, and twice she stepped behind the drum set to show off the multi-disciplinary musicianship she crafted early in her career to keep gig money coming in. Sure, Margo’s sets are not as country as they were a couple of years ago, but nobody can question the effort or artistry of her current band.
The set even included a costume change, with Margo switching out of a sheer white dress into a shimmery purple number near the end of the set. Husband Jeremy Ivey also was on stage playing a 12-string guitar, and the whole family enjoyed Pendleton and the Jackalope Jamboree while in Oregon, including Margo bringing out daughter Ramona to see the Native American dancers who helped open the festivites on Thursday as well.
Similar to booking women at festivals, there are many fests who like to talk a big talk when it comes to supporting native people, often releasing “Land Acknowledgement” statements recognizing that the event is occurring on land once claimed by Native Americans. But the Jackalope Jamboree is one of the few events that actually showcases Native American performers.
Along with the young dancers who helped bless the festivities at the beginning of the Jackalope Jamboree, Thomas Morning Owl from The Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation came out to explain how the Native Americans and European settlers had agreed to share the land in Eastern Oregon in the mid 1800’s, ahead of announcing Kaitlin Butts to the stage from another native region in Oklahoma. Singer and hand drum artist Charles Wood III also opened the main stage of the festival on Saturday.
Though the headliners are always the biggest draw, it’s the discovery aspect of a festival like the Jackalope Jamboree that makes it so fulfilling, whether it’s local or regional talent you may otherwise not get to see, or national touring acts on their way up. Jackalope offered ample amounts of both of these.
Two rapidly rising artists at the moment are Kaitlin Butts and Rob Leines. Butts recently received the often very lucrative CBS Saturday Morning feature recently, and was just named an opener for Dierks Bentley at Red Rocks. The world is finally awakening to just what a country music talent its has among its midst.
Not since Sturgill Simpson’s Sunday Valley days have we seen a frontman in country music sling Telecaster like Rob Leines. And if he doesn’t slay you with his guitar player, he just might charm you with his silver tongue in his surprisingly smart songwriting. His powerhouse country trio is a force of nature to behold, and don’t be surprised if he’s headlining his own festivals in the coming years.
At 43, it may seem a little strange to refer to Summer Dean as an “up and comer.” And don’t worry, her age is cited because it’s one of the first things she cites herself when telling her inspiring story. “I’m 43 years old, and I’ve given up everything in my life for the preservation of classic country music,” she said from the Jackalope Jamboree stage, and then proceeded to put actions behind those words by turning in what many referred to as one of the best and most surprising sets of the whole festival.
Coming out in shimmering white like she was shot out of a cannon, Summer performed right before Ryan Bingham and to a massive audience, seizing every bit of her opportunity with her “hot shit Texas band,” and turned in a performance that had wide-eyed folks turning to each other and saying, “Who the hell is this lady?!?” with assurances they’d turn to Spotify later to find out. Lucky for them, Summer just released a new album called The Biggest Life they can check out.
Tanner Usrey is another name commonly cited as a Texas up-and-comer to keep an eye on, and lived up to that billing Thursday night performing right before Margo Price. He’s got the sweaty ’70s Muscle Shoals classic rock sound down pat, and put it to good use in Pendleton.
The Lowdown Drifters and “Big” John Cannon are originally from Washington State, and are part of the set of Pacific Northwest insurgent country acts that would open for national touring artist when they can through town. But The Lowdown Drifters have since relocated to Fort Worth, and as one of the hardest working and hardest living bands in country music, have earned a national name for themselves.
A similar story can be told about Eli Howard and his band The Greater Good. Featured previously by Saving Country Music at the Wild Hare Fest in Oregon a few years ago after he showed up on stage a number of times, he’s an Oregon guy garnering a national following by putting on high energy shows featuring a two-guitar attack like an Oregon version of Southern rock. Eli Howard brings a good time to any event or venue that will have him.
The rockabilly-inspired June Clivas and the Ditty Boys made the trek up from Los Angeles, and almost got screwed by technical issues and a slight weather delay, but rallied to put on a rousing set. So did Jesse Dayne and the Sagebrush Drifters, who came to the Jackalope Jamboree representing nearby Idaho where many patrons also came from, discovering this side of country music via the the Braun Brothers and their annual reunions, hosted by Reckless Kelly in their native state.
More purely-based songwriters are also welcome in Pendleton and the Jackalope Jamboree, with Mariel Buckley making a well-received appearance, and the crowd getting a treat when Jade Jackson was tapped to fill in for comedian Dusty Slay whose family was celebrating a new baby. Jade dazzled as she always does in a way that seems destined for something bigger than the opening slots she currently plays in.
One of the many names to carry away and look forward to in the future was Mac Cornish and her band The Hens. Originally from the San Francisco and now based in Portland, you could tell she is one of these souls that is born with the love of country and folk music. Along with helping to open Saturday at the festival, she could be seen later two-stepping at the afterparty on the streets of downtown Pendleton as Austin’s Aaron McDonnell drove up to be the final entertainment of the fest, performing a set that was about as close as you could get to seeing a band play at Austin’s famed White Horse Saloon.
Last but not least, the Vandoliers deserve a shout out for warming up the stage for Shane Smith and the Saints Saturday night. “You might see us with bands like Flogging Molly. You might see us with the Turnpike Troubadours. That’s because we’re weird,” frontman Joshua Fleming said during the band’s punk country set that supercharged the crowd. The “weird” label could pertain to a lot of the Jackalope Jamboree bands, but they all work intuitively together by doing music of integrity that puts artistry over commercial interest, and includes respect for the roots of American music.
Country music in its greatest form carries forward a regional flavor from wherever it originates, lending to the wide of influences that go on to comprise the greater country genre. Whether it’s Eastern Oregon, Southern Georgia, Central Texas, or even places beyond the border of the United States like Alberta where Jackalope Jamboree performer Corb Lund is from, the importance is that the regional dialect and flavor is preserved. That is what keeps country music unique, robust, diverse, and original.
It’s events like The Jackalope Jamboree that help cross pollinate fans bases, provide large audiences to local talent and up-and-comers, and support artist touring through regions to help spread and support independent music coast to coast.
The Jackalope Jamboree also happens to be a really good time in a cool town that is a trip away from the mundanity of modern life to a time when craftsmanship mattered, business was done face to face, and human connections were made.
All photos Kyle “Trigger” Coroneos. Apologies to any performers not named or photographed. For more photos from the Jackalope Jamboree and other live events, follow Saving Country Music on Instagram.