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Truck stop bar puts out call for country, then rolls with it

Weekend!Nightlife: On the Rocks
by: DENISE FARWELL, Ruby Red lays down a tune as part of Ponderosa Lounge’s battle of the bands (culminating May 10), where country is king.

When a battle of the bands is held at the Ponderosa Lounge, it goes without saying that the weapon of choice will be country music. But there's really no rule as to what is or isn't country music, as lounge manager Dave Holliday admits.

The sprawling Ponderosa is a part of the Jubitz truck stop, which also includes a motel, movie theater, 24-hour diner and acres of parking.

When you're in charge of entertainment at a spot like this, it's your job to keep country music fans happy, but what does that mean, exactly?

A dusty jukebox full of Kitty Wells' 45s isn't going to hack it in this modern honky-tonk, where musicians connect on MySpace and smokers are exiled to a glassed-in booth.

There's new country and old country, with blues, alt-country, rockabilly and Southern rock making regular inroads. Usually Holliday mixes it up, he says, with a combination of live bands, two-stepping for the older crowd earlier in the evening, and a DJ after 11 p.m. on weekends.

Tonight, he's just curious to see who will turn up on stage - and I'm hoping for something better than what I heard on the radio on the way here.

To my ears, modern mainstream country is massively overproduced. The lyrics are a passel of laugh-out-loud clichés and groan-worthy plays on words - but that, I kind of like. Have you heard the one where the guy sings, 'A high-maintenance woman don't want no maintenance man'?

I sally through the twin exhaust pipes that mark the entrance to the Ponderosa and grab a longneck bottle of Bud.

'We sell about a thousand of those a week,' Holliday says. He introduces me to Morgan Alexander, who DJs here on weekends. Alexander, a big, friendly youngster in a cowboy shirt, leaps up onto the stage to introduce the first band.

'How many are here from Portland?' he asks the crowd, receiving a few scattered cheers. 'How many from outlying areas?' gets a much bigger response.

Ruby Red is the first of two bands that will be playing tonight. The whole battle of bands process takes place every Thursday night, followed by semifinals and then finals May 10. The grand prize is $1,000 and a Fender guitar.

Ruby Red is fronted by Robin Brantley, a long-legged ball of fire in a very short skirt and motorcycle boots. She kicks off the set by yelling, 'Are you ready to rock?' and her band really is much more rock than country, with a couple of exceptions.

One, her backup singer sports a mustache and a black cowboy hat, and two, they do a rollicking cover of Loretta Lynn and Jack White's ode to Portland.

As on 'American Idol,' the judges are asked to weigh in partway through the set. They're restrained and polite, for the most part.

Holliday recruits different judges for each night, either from the music industry or elsewhere - a rodeo rider once served on the panel.

One of tonight's judges is Jay Hulse, a Jubitz employee. The other two are brothers, Joel and Ezra Meredith, who play together as the Meredith Brothers Band. I ask them what kind of music they play.

'Cosmic country,' Joel Meredith says, explaining that that means in the style of Gram Parsons. He earns my sympathy by telling Ruby Red that their guitar player is a little too flashy.

After her set, Brantley tells me she's a former social worker who now is working full time on her music career. The mustachioed cowboy is her husband, a registered nurse.

They've played rock clubs and country spots, she says, but they just don't seem to fit in either niche. They've got two albums' worth of songs written and ready should the right patron come along.

Band No. 2 is Catmo and Nightshift, and they come on real country. Catmo (Cathy Moberg) sings with a twang, and her very first song demands, 'Pour me another shot of whiskey!'

Alexander sits down at my table and fills me in on some of the customs of western nightclubs. One is to play 'The Star Spangled Banner' each night; here at the Ponderosa, he sings it himself, at 9 p.m. every Friday and Saturday.

At the break, the judges' remarks are positive, if not wildly enthusiastic. But as their set goes on, Catmo and Nightshift seem to have trouble remaining on country turf.

They're all old hands and old friends who have played together in various combos over the years, Moberg tells me later. That explains the keyboard and guitar solos.

She herself worked as a professional musician for 15 years, although she currently does computer tech support for a school district.

At the end of their set, Joel Meredith tells them, 'With the chops you have, I'd like to see you do some old country stuff and less new country stuff.'

However, after some deliberation, and some humorous stalling from Alexander, Catmo wins the contest. They'll be going on to the semifinals later this month.

A contingent of folks in Ruby Red T-shirts is grumbling, but Brantley exclaims philosophically, 'The sad truth is, we're not a country band!'

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Ponderosa Lounge

Where: 10350 N. Vancouver Way, 503-345-0300

Hours: 6 a.m. to 2 a.m. daily