Jerome Blankenship: ‘I catered my life to fit into music’

The founder of Ships to Roam, which opens McMinnville's Walnut City Music Festival on Friday, says his musical influences range from yodelers to grunge

We’ve arrived at summer’s end and Labor Day draws near, which means the Walnut City Music Festival is primed for launch this weekend.

The seventh-annual family-friendly musical event fills two days with a blast of indie, folk, and pop rock in McMinnville’s Lower City Park, at the west end of the restaurant- and tasting-room-packed downtown. Ossie Bladine started the event with just a few bands in 2013 in the Granary District at the other end of town. Since then, it has evolved into something more substantial.  Audiences can fill up on a dozen bands, both local and out-of-state. It’s a lawn-chairs-and-blankets affair, with kids 12 and under admitted free. Food carts (which in McMinnville is, increasingly, a thing) will be nearby, ready to serve. Tickets for adults are $25 and $35. Be sure to check the website for details on what you can and can’t bring.

It begins at 4:30 p.m. Friday with the homegrown Ships to Roam, which cites among its influences Rogue Wave, Old ‘97s, The War on Drugs, and the Jayhawks. I sat down recently with the band’s founder, Jerome Blankenship, to talk about his life and work. He’s a 1999 graduate of Yamhill-Carlton High School who went on to study music in Portland before hitting the road with a punk band. Along the way, he married and had children, and even gave up music for a while until he had an epiphany: “Rather than having music fit into my life,” he said, “I catered my life to fit into music.”

The following interview was edited for length and clarity.

How did you first encounter music?

Jerome Blankenship: I grew up in a musical family, some of them Irish-American immigrants. On my mom’s side, it was people from Oklahoma who used to yodel competitively. [Blues guitarist] Roy Buchanan is a distant relative, so it’s in my blood. My uncles and cousins had a band in the 1970s and 1980s, and they toured around the Northwest. So at family get-togethers, there were always 10 guitars, a bass, and an accordion, and sometimes even a flute. It got pretty interesting. The people I looked up to all played music, and that’s going to plant a seed.

As you saw all this going on, did you want to sing or play?

I remember having a little-kid guitar and just letting my imagination go. I always wanted to be a bass player because four strings was easier to master than six, and that was the route I took by the time I was 11. Uncles gave me pointers, but then my dad got me lessons in junior high. I took lessons for two or three years, and [the instructor] said, “I can’t teach you anything else.”

Did it come easily?

Not the music theory part. I still struggle with that. As an ear musician, I’ve always been pretty good, being able to pick out where we’re at in the song and how to key things in. But I definitely knew at a young age that I wanted to be a part of it.

What about influences outside your family? What musical cultures were you tuned into?

Growing up, the big thing was grunge. I’d been to a couple concerts when I was younger, but it was everything from Christian rock to bluegrass. I started really going to shows in high school, and that was during the grunge and punk era. Punk was still happening in the ‘90s. Idolizing bands like Soundgarden, Pearl Jam. Nirvana, of course. The Seattle scene was going to inspire anybody. It wasn’t just a music thing. It was like, it’s cool to feel depressed and wear flannel and grow your hair long and not do well in school. It was fashionable.

You studied music?

Yeah, Portland Community College has a professional program for music, and I’m one of the few people I know of who actually completed the program. It’s a one-year program, but the credit load is heavy. Many of my friends dropped out. I stuck with it. I had one class left, my last term, and I wasn’t going to be able to finish it, and the teacher, Dan Pettis, shook my hand. He’s a massive man, and he’s crushing my hand, and he said, “I’m going to test you out of this now, but you’d better become famous.” And you know, for me, it’s not about becoming famous, but when you’re 20 years old and impressionable and your piano teacher is looking you in the eye and crushing your hand, saying, “You’d better do something with this,” you listen.

So what did you do with it?

After graduation, I wanted to go on to Portland State, but at that point I was going on a national tour with a band playing bass. I got to see most of the United States and play in a lot of amazing places and live in a van with three other guys. It was tough and smelly and disgusting, actually.

When did your band form?

I toured with various Portland bands and worked in the industry, as well. At the end of a stint with a punk band, when it broke up, I’d had enough of being in a band. I’d written songs on my own. I’d always been journaling, so I started to write. I had no intent of going solo, until one of my friends heard a recording that I had. He was like, “Let’s do this.” We recorded in his living room. My lucky break in 2006 was that he was friends with people who had opened a music licensing company called Rumblefish, which is now the licensing aggregator for YouTube.

Were you “Ships to Roam” at this point?

Yeah. I hadn’t even decided on a name until the album was almost finished. People had always called me “Rome,” because of the end of my name. So it’s sort of a play on my name. We had a million names and finally went with ships. The label was Red Tank, and Rumblefish helped, too.

Ships to Roam band members include (from left) Liam Stary (bass), Ryan Hales (drums), Jerome Blankenship (guitar), and Michael Robert Brown (guitar). Not pictured is Jim Garcia (guitar).
Ships to Roam band members include (from left) Liam Stary (bass), Ryan Hales (drums), Jerome Blankenship (guitar), and Michael Robert Brown (guitar). Not pictured is Jim Garcia (guitar).

You’ve said that your songs sort of come together in pieces over a stretch, rather than you sitting down and saying, “I’m inspired by X, so I’m going to write a song about X.”

Right. There have been a few songs that have come like that, but so many songs start as something very sloppy and barely a thought. For me, it takes a lot of time and refinement to finish it, taking a thought from point A to point B with ups and downs and putting it in a small space. I was talking to Ossie (Bladine) about the last album, and it’s not just the musical ideas that get lengthy, it’s also the lyrical content.

Was it easy to find your sound?

It’s always been a kind of indie-singer-songwriter-folk thing, but putting rock into it makes it something different. We played at The Bitter Monk one time — sometimes, even though you deliberately try not to be derivative of another artist, someone hears something that you don’t, and they point it out — and Brian Maselli, a musician who teaches at Mac High, was there. He said, “You guys sound like the Jayhawks.” I think at that point, I’d heard like one of the Jayhawks’ songs because it was on the radio. But I’d not taken a dive into their catalog, so I really had no idea what he was talking about. But it’s very similar. I had no idea.

Once you had that encounter, did you then do a deep dive? Or did you avoid listening to them?

Oh no, I listen to them all the time. I’m a huge fan now. I’d love to be able to see them live.

To wrap it up, could tell me one work of nonmusical art — a book, a movie, a comic, anything — that has really struck you?

Being an American with musical roots, I relate it all to music. There’s a book by E. Annie Proulx called Accordion Crimes. It’s a work of fiction, but it’s also a great piece of Americana, because it’s about immigrant stories from many angles. It’s one of the few pieces of fiction that’s brought me near to tears. I don’t generally reread things, but I’ve read it three or four times. I’ll never get rid of it, I’ll never sell it. I’ll probably carry it with me for the rest of my life.

ARTS JOURNAL: We’re heading back to Ashland later this fall to see Macbeth, so as is my custom with seeing Shakespeare at OSF, I’m revisiting the text. Spent a lot of time last week on Act IV, Scene 3 — possibly the strangest piece of the play, where Malcolm “tests” Macduff to see if he’s loyal by insisting he’s actually going to become worse than Macbeth himself. I can see how the scene would be confusing to a first-timer. Some directors trim it, apparently. This will be our third OSF Macbeth, and the first in the Elizabethan under the stars. 

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This story is supported in part by a grant from the Yamhill County Cultural Coalition, Oregon Cultural Trust, and Oregon Community Foundation.

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