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


Live music is largely back after a long hiatus over the pandemic. The lack of gigs was especially tough for up-and-coming musicians who live in smaller cities and towns. But for at least one country rocker from the rural Northwest, Margo Cilker, the pandemic may have leveled the playing field. NPR's Kirk Siegler sent this profile.



KIRK SIEGLER, BYLINE: Margo Cilker's songs bring listeners to the West's more forgotten places, like the 99 Freeway through California farm country.


MARGO CILKER: (Singing) Will I cross your mind down 99? Will you think of me on your way back to Tehachapi?

SIEGLER: A California native, Cilker has since rambled up to eastern Oregon and Washington. Her husband's a ranch hand. And her first full-length record is full of tales about the Basque sheepherders who once immigrated to this corner of the West.



SIEGLER: The songs are a crowd favorite at live shows.


CILKER: (Singing) Took a room at the old Basque Hotel. It was like a kind of a prayer when our eyelids fell.

And being in a rural place, it's an opportunity to see how other people live and meet them where they are and offer this thing to them that they appreciate.

SIEGLER: But during the pandemic, Cilker did odd jobs around the ranch and played live for the cowboys and veterinarians. And she wrote a lot. Everyone was remote and virtual, and being where she was may have actually boosted her career.

CILKER: So many people are out there concentrated in these big cities, and it shows in their writing. It becomes in itself homogenous. I've never felt like I could move to Nashville or LA, New York. Nothing about it would feed my heart.

SIEGLER: And she's still getting noticed. Seattle indie rocker Sera Cahoone is helping produce her second LP. And this summer, she scored a touring gig with Texas singer-songwriter Hays Carll.


CILKER: (Singing) And I wish I was a preacher. I could tell you who to love. I could tell you who to vote for.

SIEGLER: Cilker is part of a small but growing trend of musicians coming out of the pandemic who are deciding to stay where they are.

SEAN LYNCH: The consumer, at this point in time, has anything available to them that they want. And if it's good, it's good. It doesn't matter if it's from Billings, Mont., or if it's from New York City. If it's good, people are going to listen to it.

SIEGLER: Sean Lynch manages a rock club in Montana.

LYNCH: And this is exactly what I talk to my artists about, is if you are actually interested in touring and you're actually interested in going out doing that, you will never be able to do that if you live in Los Angeles or Nashville or New York because you're going to be constantly working all the time just to pay your rent.

SIEGLER: And touring is make or break right now for artists. On the road, Margo Cilker has been thinking a lot about how her art can dispel stereotypes about rural life. Interviewed at a festival in Boise recently, she said, you might not expect it, but there are lots of women in ranching.


CILKER: I've been out at branding crews that have more women than, like, music festivals book.

SIEGLER: One foot in both worlds, Cilker is troubled seeing all the division in America right now, where really people just don't talk to one another.


CILKER: (Singing) There's a farmer we know, steps into the tavern, where the bright lights seize the mind. The band gets an encore, the farmer a stiff pour. And we're all getting closer this time.

SIEGLER: Margo Cilker, bridging the urban-rural divide through music. Kirk Siegler, NPR News, Boise.


CILKER: (Singing) If you knew what it was like to be on both sides of me... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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

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