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Country singer William Surly performs for Whiskey Wednesday at Landmark Saloon in Portland.
Country singer William Surly performs for Whiskey Wednesday at Landmark Saloon in Portland.

Whiskey Wednesday returns to Landmark Saloon

By Phil Favorite// A staple of the local country music scene, Whiskey Wednesday at Landmark Saloon has a different look and feel but remains a crowd pleaser

The swing dancers have yet to return, but Whiskey Wednesday — a longtime lynchpin of the local country music scene — is back at Landmark Saloon in Southeast Portland.

Like a lot of things that have been transformed during the global COVID-19 pandemic, Whiskey Wednesday at Landmark has an entirely different look and feel than the evening event that packed the tiny saloon on Southeast Division Street on a weekly basis.

Forced outside to Landmark’s spacious backyard, Whiskey Wednesday has been modified with regard to local restrictions on gathering and also with consideration for noise for the surrounding neighbors. Gone is the backbeat that kept the dancers flying around the floor inside; the music now emanates from a recently built outdoor stage that caters to more of a singer-songwriter presentation.

In its heyday, Whiskey Wednesday was the domain of Jake Ray and the Cowdogs, the swampy outlaw country band that delighted the regulars who formed a loyal community of drinkers, dancers and listeners. Now the crowd is comfortably distanced in pods and anchored at covered picnic tables, ears tuned to the acoustic country stylings of host William Surly and the guests he invites on stage to perform each week.

“This was the house the Jake Ray built, and Jake was the reason I first came to this bar,” Surly said. “Whiskey Wednesday developed that sense of community, that place you knew where you could see and hear that muddy roots, genuine country music.

“This is Portland’s little Opry. There are a lot of venues that host live country music, but the Landmark always has been the heartbeat of good folk and country music, and Whiskey Wednesday has been at the center of that.”

Just as the saloon’s operational hours have shifted because of the pandemic, so have the hours of Whiskey Wednesday. It currently runs from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m., with Surly kicking things off before handing the reins to one of a handful of the singers who used to haunt the indoor stage when it was available, folks such as country chanteuse Alison Self, budding folk legend Barna Howard and even Jake Ray himself.

Typically, the crowd gets a little rowdier as the show rolls on and the drinks flow, with the available seats and the performers’ tip jar steadily filling to capacity.

“I think most people didn’t realize how much they would miss live music in a quarantine-type situation,” Surly said. “When social interaction and live music is taken from you, you begin to realize how much it means in your life. I think it recalibrated people’s understanding of what live music stands for.”

Surly said he can see a day when normalcy returns and Whiskey Wednesday heads back indoors, where the dancers hold sway on the hardwood floor and a full band has them spinning and swaying. But for now, he hopes his captivating, deep-voiced singing and strumming keeps folks coming back for more outdoor music.

“I’m more than happy to carry the torch and I’m glad it was me that got to do it,” he said. “I hope it stands as a symbol that live music is here to stay. I hope that this revitalizes people’s spirit.

“We still have a long way to go, but we’re on our way.”

Whiskey Wednesday at Landmark Saloon, 4847 S.E. Division St., Portland; 5 to 7 p.m. weekly; free.


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