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Rural singer-songwriter Margo Cilker's pandemic hustle is paying off

Singer songwriter Margo Cilker has carved out a niche performing original country songs from her home in rural Washington state.
Kirk Siegler/NPR
Singer songwriter Margo Cilker has carved out a niche performing original country songs from her home in rural Washington state.

BOISE, Idaho — Margo Cilker's songs bring listeners to the West's more forgotten places: from the 99 freeway through California farm country south to Tehachapi Pass to the north and Jordan Valley, Ore.

"Took a room at the old Basque hotel, it was like a kind of prayer when her eyelids fell," go the lyrics from That River, the first track on her first full length LP Pohorylle.

The lack of live gigs over the past two years was especially tough on up-and-coming musicians from smaller cities and towns like Cilker. But in the end it may have leveled the playing field some.

"I was one of the lucky ones to come out of the pandemic with more of an opportunity in the industry," Cilker says.

Originally from the suburban Bay Area in California, Cilker has spent most of her burgeoning career based in the rural Northwest from remote eastern Oregon to eastern Washington, where her husband works as a ranch hand.

During the lockdowns, Cilker did odd jobs around the ranch and sometimes played live for the cowboys and the veterinarians. And she wrote, a lot. Everyone was remote and virtual and her rural life figured heavily into her music. It appears to have given her career an early boost.

"So many people are out there concentrated in big cities, and it shows in their writing," Cilker says. "It becomes in itself homogenous. I've never felt like I could move to Nashville or L.A., or New York. Nothing about it would feed my art."

And even though she doesn't live in those traditional music hotbeds, she's still getting noticed. Seattle indie rocker Sera Cahoone is helping produce her second LP. This summer, Cilker also landed a lucrative gig touring with Texas singer-songwriter Hayes Carll.

The country rocker Cilker appears to be part of a small but growing trend of musicians who are realizing they can stay where they are and still be successful coming out of the pandemic. And in some cases, some are even leaving the cities in favor of smaller towns, according to Sean Lynch, who manages two indie rock bands and a club in Billings, Mont.

"The consumer at this point in time has anything available to them that they want," Lynch told NPR. "If it's good, it's good. It doesn't matter if it's from Billings, Montana, or it's from New York City. If it's good, people are going to listen to it."

Touring and live shows are key to making money right now for any band or singer, and this has especially been the case coming out of the pandemic. Lynch advises his just-starting-out artists that it's a lot tougher to make money and afford to go out on tour today if they do live in a Nashville or Los Angeles due to high rents.

Margo Cilker performing at an indie festival earlier this year in Boise, Idaho.
/ Kirk Siegler/NPR
Kirk Siegler/NPR
Margo Cilker performing at an indie festival earlier this year in Boise, Idaho.

While on her tour — her schedule has lately picked back up in earnest — Margo Cilker has been thinking a lot about how her art can dispel stereotypes about rural life. Interviewed on stage at the Treefort Music Festival in Boise in March, she said she often sees more women working on cattle branding crews than on the booking lineup at music festivals.

Cilker sees herself and her music as straddling the line, moving through both worlds of a divided America.

"I will see something and I'll tell myself this is why people hate liberals," she says, laughing. "And then I'll see something ridiculous on the other end of the spectrum, and it's like, of course, this is why everyone flocks to the major cities."

Among the crowd favorites at the Boise festival was a song inspired by the work of Oregon's poet laureate called Barbed Wire (Belly Crawl).

"There's a farmer we know, steps into the tavern, where the bright lights ease the mind," she sings. "The band gets an encore, the farmer a stiff pour, and we're all getting closer this time."

Even as her career appears to be on the up and up, Cilker hasn't lost sight of her rural influences, as she tries to bridge the country's increasing rural-urban divide through song.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Kirk Siegler
As a correspondent on NPR's national desk, Kirk Siegler covers rural life, culture and politics from his base in Boise, Idaho.