the audience-recession blues
on James Low
My brief journey to the tiny light that is Portland's
North Russell District ends as I wedge into a tight spot, slide
out the passenger's door (don't ask) of my overheating car and
into the White Eagle.
Thirst soon slaked, I settle into the stone-cold
deserted tavern. The scheduled band is not where I expect it to
be. The two guys on stage bear only the slightest resemblance
to the five-piece I came to see.
up a storm: James Low's joy at playing is proof positive.
[photo by Basil
"Audience-wise, Portland is in a recession,"
says James Low, who was asked to fill in at the last minute.
"In my view, Portland has an extremely vibrant
music scene. There are songwriters in this town whom I view as
being of the highest caliber."
If the dearth of Portland audiences is a problem,
it isn't due to Low and his ilk.
Working as a duo, Low on acoustic guitar and Lewi
Longmire on acoustic guitar and harmonica, explain why they're
The scheduled act exploded in ugly acrimony only
days before. But it's my good fortune, as Low and friend enthrall
me and the one other guy at the bar.
"Portland media is somewhat responsible for
the perceived lull in the scene," Low continues.
I'll do my restitution, then, and mention that though
this is a last-minute gig, before long a good-sized group appears
and enjoys the show. As for the other band, well, it's a cautionary
tale for would-be musicos. Don't date within a band and
definitely don't trade partners.
Low, a regular on the local alt-country/folkie/old-timey
circuit, quickly convinces that we're in expert hands. I'm far
from disappointed with the unexpected change-up. Instead, I'm
floored by Low and Longmire's easy command of their seemingly
off-the-cuff repertoire, which encompasses moaning lost-love ballads,
countrified rave-ups, stylish soloing and tasty harp playing.
There's an undercurrent of injustice deeply felt
coursing through Low's voice and song selection, which includes
Lucinda Williams' beautiful "Drunken Angel."
Low's own wordsmithery, however, rivals that of
Williams. His "Worn Out," from a forthcoming release,
sketches a heart-wrenching portrait of someone carrying a torch
in just one line: "... fillin' in our dance cards with the
shadows of the ones we really want."
Low's voice is sweet and clear; not ragged, but
world-weary nonetheless as if worn by years as the instrument
of an old soul. The effect is dusty and fresh.
What draws so many contemporary writers to these
defiantly non-contemporary styles?
"I grew up in John Day, a town of about 3,000
in Eastern Oregon," Low recalls. "The only radio station
was AM and went off the air at six every night. When they played
music it was mostly country, and while I hated it at the time,
it must have gotten into my blood."
While most musicians treading the same ground grew
up under different circumstances, all seem to share a reverence
for the truthful, beautiful writing in old-timey music.
"I grew up in an environment that respected
the song over any other element in music," says Low, whose
songs and his joy at playing them bring proof.
I let my attention wander to a friend just back
from an abortive attempt to move to Missouri. In his travels,
he found Kentucky to be the most beautiful place.
And as Low and Longmire kick up a dust storm in
the background, Kentucky sounds beautiful. I guess there's something
to that old-time country music after all.
See James Low:
Oct. 5: Boones Treasury, Salem, Ore.
Oct. 12: Grand Lodge, Forest Grove, Ore.
Oct. 19: Mad Hatter Lounge, Portland (w/trio)
Saturdays: Laurelthirst, Portland; 6-8 p.m. (w/full