An octogenarian German accordionist, an avant-garde guitarist, a little girl with song lyrics written in crayon, a gaggle of hippies and a classical pianist walk into a room in Hillsboro. Suddenly the lights go out...

It sounds like the setup for a barroom joke, or a hyperbolic storybook scenario where musicians come together under a shared banner of musicality to teach us how to work together to promote community through art.

But hyperbole this isn’t. It’s just a typical Friday night at downtown Hillsboro’s Influence Music Hall, a 42-seat concert venue that, in six short years, has gone from being a little-known refuge for musicians looking for a weekly outlet to something of a beacon for traveling musicians, young scribes honing their chops, inexperienced songwriters making their on-stage debuts, and older pros dusting off their instruments.

The key to its success, says founder Evan Acey, is that no matter where you come from, what you play, how skilled you are or what genre you’re practicing, you’ve always got a home underneath the colorful spotlight beaming down on the small stage.

And more importantly, you’ve always got an audience.

“Everybody who comes here should feel like a star, no matter what level you are or the kind of music you play,” says Acey, 49, who also operates Hillsboro Computer Services and performs in the band Gentle Breeze. “You should feel like you had your 15 minutes in the spotlight. If people leave because they don’t appreciate what (these performers) are doing, then they don’t belong here.”

Influence began its life in 2006, when Acey opened the venue in the old Montgomery Ward building. After a fundraising effort and buildout, Acey swung open the doors ready for the influx of creative types that were sure to come pouring into a new venue where all were welcome to take the stage.

He was greeted by one other musician. Undeterred, Acey picked up his guitar and began plucking.

Acey kept at it, posting on Craigslist and opening the doors each week to small (but not as small) audiences. Then, about four weeks into the venue’s life, something happened: Acey began playing and, before he knew it, the place was packed.

“The old adage ‘If you build it, they will come’ came true for me,’” says Acey, quoting “Field of Dreams.” “People did come. We had meager attendance the first nights, but as people started coming in it really took off. People started inviting their friends, and now we’re in our sixth year with a reputation.”

Regular musicians

One of those first performers was “El Dorado” Gene Ralph, a folk/rock guitarist who draws his name from his days as a gold miner. Ralph showed up while the music hall was in its infancy. He’s seldom missed an open mic since.

Ralph says he was initially drawn in by the warmth created by IMH’s staff and its musicians. It’s a comfort he’s thrilled to help cultivate.

“We’ve tried our utmost to create an atmosphere where everyone feels welcome, and it’s become sort of a family,” says Ralph, 56. “We have people coming in from all walks of life and generations and artistic tastes. It’s a cross section of the whole community,”

Now located on Third Avenue, the Hall hasn’t been without its troubles. Like any nonprofit, it struggled to meet its operating costs for the first 5 years of operation. But last year, under the direction of current president Jeannette Noble, the operation began making money.

Manager Skip Farmer, who often plays guitar alongside banjo-plucking wife Nancy, likens Hillsboro’s evolution as an arts scene to that of his former home, Austin, Texas. Both were relatively quiet before corporate booms. Austin became the musical Mecca of the Southwest. Farmer hopes IMH can help Washington County obtain a similar status.

“I really see Hillsboro as having an extraordinary potential for influencing this part of the country in a positive way,” says Farmer, 64. “We’re trying to build something that everybody can buy into.”

The notoriety helps. As IMH has become more well-known, it’s also become a destination for traveling musicians. Touring groups have shown up at the weekly open mic nights ready for a quick three-song set. Others have sought out a coveted slot on the venue’s concert schedule.

“We had some truck drivers come in a few weeks ago, and I said ‘What the heck’s that big rig parked out there? It was a couple of guys from Florida, and one of them said he was always researching venues all over the country,” says Ralph. “They found ours, and he was a really talented guy. It’s amazing to meet these kinds of people. It’s like a beacon.”

Acey relays a similar story about a traveling band that showed up one night and was blown away by the sense of community.

“(One) band that was touring — a hippie band — came through and said ‘IMH was by far our favorite stop on our tour. The love you have in this place is extra special. Never let it change,’” recalls Acey.

Farmer attributes the notoriety to the hall’s drive to welcome all, and the local musical community’s drive to help one another become the best musicians they can be. by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: CHASE ALLGOOD - Influence Music Hall founder Evan Acey says the rugged venue is developing a reliable crowd of troubadours.

“Portland has a great music scene, but it’s fractured. In Washington County, there’s a community of musicians that support each other,” says Farmer. “It’s not about money. It’s about the community, and it’s very, very positive. When you’re in a big family you have a responsibility to that family. And the family has a responsibility to you. That’s the feeling we have going. We’re going to keep trying to build on it.”

Building is what IMF has done best, and something it plans to continue doing, whether it’s offering more open mics, expanding, front-loading its concert schedule, or simply offering more opportunities for an octogenarian accordion player, an avant-garde guitarist, a banjo player, a concert pianist, and a kid with a crayon-scrawled ditty to come in and be stars... if only for a moment.

“I think it would be possible to see live music in that venue every night of the week, 365 days a year,” says Acey. “By continuing at the rate we’re going, the only thing keeping us from that is having the right number of people dedicated to volunteering their time.”

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