Flatirons – Raw talent, raw fish
I was sold on the Flatirons in the amount of time it took for the first sound to move from singer Wendy Pate’s mouth to my ear. She has the gift — one of those strong, true voices that commands your attention. And the band, led by guitarists Jason Okamoto and Scott Weddle, is young and highly skilled, presenting their traditionally-inspired original country songs honestly without coming off like a retro museum piece. The Flatirons have quickly built a loyal following on the Portland scene.
Pate, Okamoto and Weddle started playing acoustic coffeehouse shows in 1995, later added upright bassist Jesse Emerson, and the Flatirons were born. New drummer Doug Wagner rounds out the group, although fiddler Megan Sorensen often sits in. Okamoto is tastefully restrained in the David Rawlings mold, playing electric and lap steel. Emerson lays down a mean Johnny Cash train-song beat, and Weddle plays acoustic guitar with a high energy that keeps the dance floor jumping. Together, the musicians provide the perfect complement to Pate’s big-time singing. Songwriting duties are shared and collaborative. Covers are tasty and surprising, from the Ike Turner chestnut “Further on Down the Line” to “Crazy Train” by Ozzy Osbourne.
Pate’s voice sounds like no one in particular but is steeped in the great ones. “For a long time, I didn’t want to admit how much I liked country,” Pate says. “But I saw that movie Sweet Dreams with Jessica Lange when I was 12 or 13 and I became this terrible, closet Patsy Cline fan; wouldn’t admit it to any of my friends. Then it just developed more and more. I’m really into the singers. I love Ray Price, Jim Reeves, Buck Owens, George Jones. I’m just really into the phrasing and that style of singing.”
Okamoto, whom Weddle describes as “a total country aficionado,” has an unusual day job for a country guitarist: sushi chef. “People sit at the sushi bar and ask me what else I like to do,” Okamoto says. “I tell them I’m a guitar player. And they say, ‘Do you play jazz?’ ‘No.’ ‘Rock?’ ‘No. I play in a country band.’ And that just ends all conversation,” he concludes with a laugh.
Okamoto explains the Flatirons’ approach: “We don’t want to go back and duplicate the old country music, but we want to learn a lesson from it and create something new.” Weddle adds: “The tastiest music in almost any genre is the stuff with the most minimal parts. Buck Owens & the Buckaroos and Merle Haggard and those guys all understood parts really well, and that’s what we are shooting for. We try to take a minimalist approach in our songwriting, with a goal of creating something bigger than the sum of the parts.”
The band is excited about the resurgence of country music, and about the enthusiastic response they’ve been getting. “We like to say we’re the country you didn’t know you like,” says Weddle. “We had a guy in a big purple mohawk sitting in the front row one night.” “Yeah,” recalls Pate, “he just stared. I thought, ‘This guy hates us!’ Then, first break, he’s like, ‘Gosh I’m really bummed I have to go; you guys are awesome.’ And now I see him at a lot of our shows.”
The band is about to make its first record for a local Portland label. While they’re off to a comparatively fast start, Pate says she wishes the band had been able to get into the studio even earlier. “It would have been great all along the way if we could have recorded a record about every three months,” she says. “We have, and we want to, change and evolve and grow, and it would be cool to have a snapshot of every piece of time, documenting it. That would be my dream: to have our own recording studio, and do that all the time.”