Country Music Mecca

Linn County’s non-existent country concerns

Thirty miles northeast of Eugene, tucked amid trees and fields like a memory of some simpler time, sits the historic city of Brownsville. This quaint town is made up of roughly 40 streets over 1.34 square miles of land. A few of these roads extend beyond Brownsville’s center and out into true Willamette Valley countryside. The commerce that dots Main Street is not exactly bustling, but does not fall short where patronage is concerned. The folks here know one another; they exude a sense of camaraderie, of tolerance, of knowingness that cities far on the horizon sprawl thin and fade with the tides of consumer demand. Those cities’ fates lie in the hands of capitalist fluctuations, and they will be remembered as such.

Founded in the 1840s and municipally incorporated in 1876, Brownsville maintains a nicely intact historic culture, which is immortalized by the Linn County Historical  Museum, Moyer House and other artifacts from Oregon’s pioneer days. But once a year — for six years now — this small town becomes an epicenter for some ten to fifteen thousand visitors, and they come not for the history, but for the monstrous amalgam of modern culture that is the Bi-Mart Willamette Country Music Festival.

The festival takes place for three days, Aug. 16-18, at Anderson Farm just 3 miles outside of Brownsville city limits. Don’t let the location deter you, though. This isn’t a small-town gathering, nor is it a medium-sized, shruggably attended romp with unknown talent and even more uninviting amenities. It’s got room to be the largest country music festival in Oregon, rivaled only by Sweet Home’s Oregon Jamboree 20 minutes down the road, which has a maximum attendance of 13,000 per day. As for the talent, well, see for yourself. The 2013 lineup includes Hunter Hayes, Chris Young, Eli Young Band, Darius Rucker, Carrie Underwood and Brad Paisley.

In short, this thing is huge. And yet, despite a show of support from the people of Brownsville, there appears to be a floating sense of apathy in the air.

Over in Sweet Home on Aug. 2, the streets were lined with signs welcoming country music lovers. The sidewalks were crowded with cowboy hats, Daisy Dukes and American flags (some of the flags were Confederate). Indeed, every bar, restaurant and parking lot seemed packed to the brim with spirit and support for Oregon’s other country music festival. It seemed as though Sweet Home was truly cashing in on the Oregon Jamboree.

Brownsville could benefit enormously from a similar show of support. But whether this tiny town is prepared to cash in remains to be seen.

Turgidity Overwhelms

The 2010 census listed Brownsville’s population at 1,668. That’s roughly 1,200 people per square mile. The sold-out Willamette Country Music Festival has a maximum daily attendance of 15,000. That’s nearly 10 times the population, and, were they all stuffed within city limits, it works out to approximately 11,000 country music lovers per square mile. In perspective, that’s sort of like trying to stuff 11 horses into a one-horse trailer. How, then, does Brownsville cope? Where are all of these people supposed to stay?

S. Scott McDowell, Brownsville’s city administrator, takes a positive approach where overcrowding is concerned:

“The main effect to Brownsville,” he says, “is that the D-Mart does its biggest three or four days of the year and there’s more folks at the farmers market.” McDowell says he thinks that traffic is an over-discussed topic, and that the festival organizers have done a much better job setting precautions in place this year — among them, a more expansive general admission parking area and separate entrances for large vehicles such as trucks and mobile homes.

The official festival campground can hold a maximum of 3,000 occupants, and a second campground nearby — the Ken Sayer Family Grounds — will share some of the load. But still there stands the tricky question of fitting everybody in. Thankfully, as McDowell points out, the festival organizers took decent initiative and put a few more resources in place.

The festival is partnered with three hotels in Springfield, which means a 26-mile drive each way. At a discounted rate — which works out to a mere $10 reduction for each — festival-goers have a place to sleep. Even if it’s absolutely not worth the gas money back and forth each night, at least it will keep the arteries to Brownsville’s heart clean and clear.

The one time that problems tend to arise, according to McDowell, is before Friday night’s headliner.

“Last year on that Friday night everyone showed up an hour before the show and Hwy. 228 got backed up,” he says. “10 [thousand] of those 15,000 [festival-goers] came within an hour and a half — Friday night was the big night that it got tough.”

“But,” he says, “it’s just one of those things. By and large I don’t care where you do it, there’s gonna be some grouchy people. But outside those one or two people everyone understands the benefits.”

 Clockwise: Kelly Corbett pioneer market antiques, Marilyn Grimes wants more metal, Reed Anderson venue owner, Randy Ginn randy’s main street coffee 

Back on the map?

Throughout Brownsville there is a strange hush, almost as though it would be blasphemous to speak ill of the festival. Again and again residents speak on the festival’s “pros,” but when prompted toward anything negative — even issues as basic as traffic — comments to the “con” are rare.

Kelly Corbett, owner of Pioneer Market Antiques, says he has heard complaints about the alcohol consumption brought by the festival. But, he says, “that’s the nature of the beast.”

“Anytime you have a big party like that you’re always going to have that problem,” he says.

At the local watering hole, a man who calls himself Jeff-O says that traffic gets heavy, but he maintains that the festival is an asset. He says that people often drive on down the highway without realizing the town of Brownsville is even there.

Marilyn Grimes, a Brownsville resident, seems to have no qualms with the festival other than the fact that it is over-commercialized and doesn’t include enough metal bands: “I would like to see local bands play without all the hubbub,” she says.

But despite everybody claiming that the festival is a good thing, residents seem hard pressed to explain why. Those who don’t benefit directly — among them Sheila Wingren of Lookin’ Glass Barber Shop — stay staunchly passive about the festival’s presence:

“No one comes for haircuts,” she says, before continuing to shave a customer’s head.

Sources indicate that a shuttle from the festival into Brownsville’s heart is chartered every year, but it does not bring the type of sustainable crowd one would expect. Why in the name of Johnny Cash would people be so gung-ho about the festival’s presence when the benefits and deficits to Brownsville appear so minor?

“I can really see the community getting involved,” says Reed Anderson, owner of the festival’s venue. Anderson says one of the agreements he made with festival organizers was that the event must act as a bolstering point for local organizations to bring in money for a variety of services and activities in the Brownsville community. “Last year the kids made about $40,000 for their extracurricular activities,” he says, “and the fire department does well at the festival; they host a breakfast here each year. Last year the fire department made about $10,000.”

The permit for 2013’s festival was approved in early April, leaving almost five months for planning. Since then, a number of local businesses have involved themselves.

“It’s an asset,” says Randy Ginn, owner of Randy’s Main Street Coffee. “My whole staff is abandoning me to go out there.” Ginn was very involved with the festival in its formative years. He says they combined it with a benefit for the troops, and everything came off a smashing success. He used to provide the coffee. Since then his involvement has decreased, but he still maintains that the festival is great for the community.

“It’s a tremendous asset for Brownsville, but also Linn County,” McDowell says. “The people of Brownsville overall are extremely supportive. And why not? With the Oregon Jamboree in Sweet Home and this festival here, Linn County has become a mecca for country music.”

So it seems there are plenty of reasons to get psyched for this event. The reasons behind the apparent lack of enthusiasm seem cosmic and unfathomable. But hey, at least no one’s breaking Anderson’s spirit:

“It’s sort of a win, win, win,” he says. “This is putting Brownsville back on the map.”

One thing is for certain; the Bi-Mart Willamette Country Music Festival will draw a crowd. Now Brownsville is faced with a choice: Rock it like Sweet Home and flood the bank or sit back and watch apathetically from the sidelines. The choice is theirs to make.

Photos by Todd Cooper.