Walnut City Music Festival closes out summer on a high note

Six years ago, a newspaper editor decided his hometown of McMinnville needed an indie, folk, rock festival to call its own. Now bands are calling him.

It’s probably not accurate to say that Yamhill County is in the midst of a “renaissance” of live entertainment, because definitions of the word (beyond the obvious historical reference to Europe in the 1300-1600s) typically rely on synonyms like “renewal,” “rebirth,” “revival” — implying a thriving cultural scene that vanished.

But it’s surely a healthy measure of the area’s cultural growth that in the past eight years, three successful summer music festivals have been launched and appear fixed to stay. Opera-centric Aquilon roared to life this summer (and has already held some encore performances) and Wildwood MusicFest in Willamina has been going since 2011.

That leaves the Walnut City Music Festival, a two-day late-summer blast of indie, folk and pop rock, to close out Oregon’s smoky August in the heart of wine country. The sixth annual family-friendly party begins Friday in McMinnville’s Lower City Park, at the west end of the restaurant-packed downtown district just beyond the library.

Ossie Bladine, founder and organizer of the Walnut City
Music Festival, says the event fits into a plan to develop a larger music venue in McMinnville. Photo courtesy: Walnut City Music Festival.

The festival was founded in 2013 by Ossie Bladine, and here we must pause for a moment of disclosure: My orbit intersected with Ossie’s when he was in high school in the late 1990s. I’d come to work at the local newspaper owned by his family, and he was in the office regularly along with his sister, Chelsey. In 2014, 29-year-old Ossie became editor of the News-Register, taking over from his father, Jeb, and representing the fourth generation of the Bladine family to run McMinnville’s locally owned newspaper.

Given that I freelance for the News-Register, this article puts me in the unusual position of writing about someone who signs my paycheck. Rest assured, it’s not an effort to curry favor with my editor by featuring his festival at the top of the column this week; on the final weekend of summer vacation, it’s unquestionably the hottest ticket in town.

The festival started with a literal bang six years ago. Many bangs, in fact. The Hill Dogs were playing in the Granary District when it happened: A thunderstorm worthy of an over-produced King Lear landed right on top of the stage. Bladine explained:

“There were reports of maybe some rain that day, and we got up on the stage about half an hour earlier before that set, and we looked at the radar, and we looked up and it looked clear. I thought, ‘We’re going to be OK.’ And then within 20 minutes….” He paused to marvel at the sheer power of the moment. “It was the closest thing to a monsoon I’ll ever see. It came in and wiped everything out.

“There were a couple times when the thunder went with the song,” he added. “It was pretty awesome. There was a tree that was split in half in the back of the parking lot.”

This isn’t Bladine’s first music festival. A long-time fan of live music, Bladine had spearheaded CouvFestNW a couple of years earlier in Vancouver, Wash., where he was living while editing a weekly newspaper. Back in McMinnville, he quickly decided that his hometown need its own music festival.

The first few years, Walnut City’s mostly indie rock bands played in mid-August in the Granary District. That changes this year.

“Two years ago, we were in mid-August and it was over a hundred degrees both days,” Bladine explained. Last year, the festival was held over Labor Day weekend, and — guess what — again it was 100 degrees. Bladine said the Granary District stage is easy and convenient, “but it’s on concrete, and we’d always wanted to move out to a park. That was our goal. The long-term goal is to develop an amphitheater or some sort of larger music venue here in McMinnville.”

Although Bladine says he is not an expert on the music industry, he speaks knowledgeably and thoughtfully about the ever-evolving intersection of music, economics and technology, and understands it well enough to know that the time is ripe for events like this. Earlier this year, he explained it this way in the News-Register:

“The music industry has undergone a full evolution from product-based to experience-based. CD album sales and MTV have taken a back seat to streaming services and YouTube. Independent artists receive minimal cuts from streaming services like Spotify and Apple Music, so must rely more on touring and selling merchandise at live shows. But streaming services and social media are also incredible tools for independent musicians to share and market their music. Likewise, they are great resources for those booking live music, providing a seemingly endless supply of acts to consider when curating a festival or concert series.”

The Seattle quartet Kuinka returns to the Walnut City Music Festival’s stage at 8:30 p.m. Friday. NPR Music describes their sound as “joyous folk pop.” Photo courtesy: Walnut City Music Festival.

The 2013 festival crammed 10 bands into a single day. This year, more than a dozen are spread across two days, and in only five years, Walnut City is an event musicians are seeking out.

“Word starts to get out, and they’re always looking for new venues and festivals to play,” Bladine said, “so we get 40 or 50 bands calling us, and then we have 60 or 70 bands that we like and want to play, and we have to pare it down to 13. It’s crazy how many bands there are out there across the U.S. to select from.”

McMinnville’s own bluegrass band, Bootleg Jam, lights it up Friday afternoon at 5 p.m., followed by McDougall at 6, The Mondegreens starting at 7:15 p.m., then the Seattle-based quartet Kuinka around dusk, and finally, The Stone Foxes starting the final set of the evening at 10 p.m.

On Saturday, the locals get the stage first: Manitoba Road Crew is up at 1:45 p.m., followed by Sarah Parson (of Lower 48), Scratchdog Stringband, Erisy Watt, Ben Rice, Ivory Deville, Marty O’Reilly & The Old Soul Orchestra, and The Helio Sequence.

I could inundate you with details, but it’s easier to just point you to the Walnut City Music Festival website, where you can buy tickets and find a complete schedule and band descriptions, along with info on parking, lodging, pets, and kids (under 12 admitted free, and there’s an arts and crafts area for them).

If you’ve already booked plans for Labor Day weekend, but you’re still game for live music, fear not: McMinnville has you covered the following weekend as well with Oregon Brews & BBQs, a fundraiser for St. James Catholic School and GhanaHope Foundation. Look for more than 50 taps serving craft beer from nearly three dozen breweries, along with barbecue and other great eats. The event runs Sept. 7-9 in the Oregon Mutual Insurance parking lot at Fourth and Baker streets in McMinnville and features plenty of live music, including: Manitoba Road Crew, CD Woodbury Trio, Finding Dani, Laymans Terms, Fun with Jo, Speaker Minds, Vintage Knights and Thunder Road. Check out the website for more information.

Sandwiched between those two events is an extraordinary opportunity at Stoller Family Estate on Labor Day. Internationally acclaimed concert pianist Hunter Noack brings his In a Landscape show to the hills above Dayton at 6:30 p.m. Monday, Sept. 3, for a 70-minute outdoor concert. Noack equips his audience with earphones so they can soak up the amazing scenery while they listen to him play on a 9-foot Steinway that he carts around the state to far-flung locales, making for an exquisite pairing of place and art. Regular tickets are $50, donation tickets are $75, and a limited number of free tickets are available. For more information, visit the In a Landscape website.

Finally, I didn’t have a chance to preview the following visual art exhibitions, but here are several you should know about.

Chehalem Cultural Center in Newberg has rotated in a new set of exhibitions, and among them you’ll find Shellie Garber’s Land, Sea and Sky: An Abstract View. The Portland-based registered nurse began painting in 2015 and works mostly in acrylic, collage, oil pastel, and pencil. The exhibition will be in the Founder’s Gallery through Oct. 6. There’s a smaller window for the Art Squared Exhibition in the Central Gallery, where more than two dozen artists have donated work to be auctioned off as a fundraiser for the center. The show runs through Sept. 8. In the Community Gallery, Home Today: Drawings by Matthew Sproul runs through Nov. 10.

Back in McMinnville, Linfield College is coming to life, and that includes an opening reception this week in Linfield Gallery for the school year’s first exhibition, America Likes Me, which features six Oregon-based artists whose work explores “ideas of shared histories, American identity and the legacy of trauma.” Organized by gallery curator Josephine Zarkovich, the show is in conversation with Joseph Beuys’ 1974 performance piece I Like America and America Likes Me. Artists include Demian DinéYahzi’, Daniel Duford, Ka’ila Farrell-Smith, Julie Green, sidony o’neal and Marie Watt.

An opening reception will be from 6 to 7 p.m. Wednesday, Aug. 29, and the show runs through Oct. 5. I’m excited about this one, although I won’t be able to see it until after Labor Day. Keep an eye on this space for more about this show later in the fall.

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