A powerful new musical voice emerges from eastern Oregon


With just 2,000 residents, Enterprise, Oregon is the largest city in Wallowa County. It is surrounded by extensive cattle ranches and surrounded by the magnificent Wallowa Mountains and an eerie 8,000-foot-deep gorge called Hells Canyon that straddles the Idaho border to the east.

Despite this remoteness, it is also home to a musical community that nourishes the work of artists like Margo Cilker, whose first record “PohorylleWas released this week.

Cilker’s striking voice is the latest in a line of songwriters inspired by this wild corner of northeastern Oregon.

The scenic but rugged Wallowa Valley in far northeast Oregon is one of the most secluded places in the United States.

Jerad Walker / OPB

When folk musician Janis Carper moved to Enterprise from Seattle nearly 20 years ago, she made seven trips in a van filled with her family’s belongings. And every time she crossed the Minam River on Route 82, it hit her.

“Well, of course I was first in awe of nature – the beauty,” said Carper, who is the executive director of a regional nonprofit music organization called the Wallowa Valley Musical Alliance.

While the breathtaking landscapes of eastern Oregon provide great artistic inspiration, Carper insists that there is a trade-off for musicians who settle in this rugged location.

“It’s definitely a feeling of geographic isolation. People don’t come here to go anywhere because you can’t really get from here, ”she explained before adding“ except Hells Canyon and Snake River – you can just go past the edge!

Fellow musician and producer Bart Budwig believes that isolation also has its advantages.

“You have to be a little proactive towards the community. People are motivated to make it happen because they aren’t going to happen on their own, ”Budwig said.

Budwig speaks from experience. Since 2015 he has mainly lived and worked in the historic OK Theater in downtown Enterprise where he has recorded albums for musicians from across the country.

The historic OK Theater sits in the heart of Enterprise, OR, with a population of 1,900.

Photographed in 2017, the historic OK Theater sits in the heart of Enterprise, OR (population 2,000). The theater is currently closed to the public during renovations.

courtesy of Darrell Brann

In recent years, the OK Theater has also served as a rallying point for a tight-knit group of songwriters loosely bound by a love of intelligent lyricism and classical Western music.

“The music coming out of Wallowa County is not frantic,” Budwig said. “I feel like it’s ingrained and ingrained and often comes from personal experience. “

Budwig cites his fellow musician Cilker and his song “Brother Taxman Preacher” as a shining example of this sound. It’s a blunt, yet funny, critique of male-dominated rural power structures disguised as honky-tonk jam. In the song’s lyrics, she calls out to religious leaders and even her own brother.

“I am sorry, [but] no one is safe, ”Cilker said with a laugh. “You are not safe. My friends are not safe. You can always end up in a song.

Cilker, who has worked as a waitress in local restaurants and more recently on a poultry farm, is fascinated by the people she meets in everyday life.

“And that’s why I love music and songwriting, is because it’s fun profiling people. I like to meet colorful characters. I could strike up a conversation with the wall.

Cilker’s enthusiasm for documenting the human condition has won his followers far beyond the shadow of the Wallowa Mountains, including respected Seattle-based musician Sera Cahoone.

“I love his lyrics,” Cahoone said. “She is witty. She’s just a great songwriter. It was pretty immediate for me. I was like ‘Whoa, that’s such a delicate saying you did there!’ So I knew she had something special going on.

Cahoone produced Cilker’s debut album, “Pohorylle”. The new album features 11 songs punctuated by bar piano, steel pedal guitars and bouncy horn arrangements. But surprisingly, Cahoone’s favorite song is also one of the simplest: a creepy confessional called “Flood Plain”.

"Pohorylle" by Margo Cilker

“Pohorylle” by Margo Cilker

Courtesy of te

Cilker wrote the article about her relationship with her husband Forrest Van Tuyl, a musician who seasonally works on horseback as a professional cowboy. It’s a mind-blowing performance that showcases his versatility as an observational writer who can also look within.

“Yeah, it’s just a song about marriage,” Cilker said. “It’s a song about giving yourself space. It’s a powerful message of ‘things are really tough right now, but I’m not letting go’. I’ll hang on. I got this picture of a rubber band – sometimes someone has to walk around. If you must ramble, row. Go and come back. This is the kind of mercy that I would like someone to offer me too.

2022 is shaping up to be an exciting year for Cilker, who recently signed a record breaking contract with Fluff and Gravy, Portland based label. She and Van Tuyl plan to spend the winter on a ranch near the Columbia River Gorge before going on tour together. It’s a much-needed break after two years of isolation imposed by COVID-19 on Enterprise, which is already one of the most isolated places in the country.

But after this long hike, Cilker plans to return to the great outdoors of the American West.

“I mean, why shouldn’t someone live in the middle of nowhere – the center of the universe – and make art?” “

Margo Cilker stars in Portland at Polaris Hall Sunday November 14.

Margo Cilker pictured in the alley behind the OK Theater in Enterprise, Oregon.  The location is a rallying point for songwriters who live in Wallowa County.

Margo Cilker pictured in the alley behind the OK Theater in Enterprise, Oregon. The location is a rallying point for songwriters who live in Wallowa County.

Stephen smith

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