Ships to Roam

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.

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