Rocket Queen: Deep in the Heart of Ballard

Musicians pay tribute to a state they love.

Local cab driver and veteran punk musician Damon Titus, whom I've written about in previous columns, recently shared with me an interesting theory about Seattle districts.

"Every neighborhood thinks it's another major American city," he says. According to Titus, Pioneer Square, with its brick-paved streets and history of jazz and blues, is Chicago. Belltown's meat-market scene and long club lines suggest Los Angeles. "Capitol Hill probably likes to think they're Manhattan," he laughs.

I'd posit that Georgetown's rebellious attitude, embrace of bike culture, and flat landscape conjure a vibe akin to Portland. So where does this leave Ballard? Titus doesn't hesitate: "Austin. Ballard is definitely Austin."

He's absolutely right. In addition to being a magnet for local filmmakers and the longtime home of Seattle's alt-country scene, Ballard also boasts an extremely strong sense of community and a great deal of neighborhood pride that echoes Austin's team spirit, manifesting itself in events like the recently resurrected hootenanny series at Hattie's Hat and the Urban Picnic being held at the Ballard Commons Park this Saturday, May 1 (the School of Rock kids are playing and Skillet is handling the grub). The rustic revamp given to the soon-to-be-rechristened Two Bit Saloon—which will have its grand re-opening on Saturday, May 8—makes it look like the sort of space one would find on South Congress Street in Texas' capital. It's almost surprising that there hasn't been a proliferation of barbecue joints in the hood.

And of course, the population of musicians in Ballard is significant: It's nearly impossible to enter watering holes like Hazlewood (co-owned by Soundgarden bassist Ben Shepherd and Little Cuts guitarist Drew Church), Spanish tapas bar Ocho, or the salty, '60s time capsule that is the Smoke Shop without encountering a member of the Maldives or Jesse Sykes and the Sweet Hereafter.

How appropriate, then, that the show at the Tractor this Thursday is an homage to Texas, billed as "Messin' With Texas: Seattle Bands Sing Songs of the Lone Star State" by promoter and musician Shelby Earl (see the Short List). This is the third year she's coordinated a cover night oriented around a geographical theme.

"It occurred to me a few years ago that nearly every significant songwriter has written at least one song about California," Earl explains. "And more than a few of them are excellent songs. So I looked it up, and sure enough there's even a Wikipedia page called 'Songs About California.'" Originally, she envisioned a collaborative record of covers, but scrapped that idea in favor of a live show when she realized getting recording rights would be a bit of a nightmare. "We also decided that rather than just make it a night for our own enjoyment, we should have it be a benefit for something or other." That year, all proceeds went to Sustainable Ballard, a local environmental organization. It went over so well that she revisited the idea the next year, corralling artists like Kurt Bloch, Kate Tucker, Burning Rivers, and Department of Energy around the theme of Memphis, with proceeds benefiting musicians' health-care network MusiCares.

Thursday's show will once again raise money for MusiCares, and will feature an impressive lineup that includes members of Visqueen, the Long Winters, the Maldives, SHIM, Widower, and Thee Sgt Major III, local producer Martin Feveyear, Barton Carroll, and Earl herself. Plenty of intriguing collaborations are planned, including Visqueen frontwoman Rachel Flotard and Long Winters leader John Roderick playing a Spoon song with Earl. And guitarist Jeff Fielder plans to bust out some Stevie Ray Vaughan tunes with help from Love Battery drummer Mike Musburger.

Maldives frontman Jason Dodson didn't hesitate to sign on when Earl approached him. His band will be doing their interpretation of "London Homesick Blues" by Gary P. Nunn, a song made famous by country crooner (and current Austinite) Jerry Jeff Walker, just one of many artists Dodson passionately points to when asked about his involvement.

"As far as I'm concerned, Texas is the birthplace of American civilization," he declares in the characteristically grandiose tone he's prone to. "By that I mean culture. It is a nation unto itself, and likes to think of itself that way. Especially Austin. Look at all the great music that's come from the Lone Star State—Bob Wills, Willie, Waylon, Townes, Jerry Jeff Walker, ZZ Top, Lightnin' Hopkins, Mance Lipscomb, to name a few," he continues. "You say that Ballard is the Austin of Seattle? I'd buy that. I'd say that Ballard is the birthplace of Seattle culture. But I'm biased. You don't fuck with a man's home."

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