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Screechless in Seattle : And now for someone completely different: Pete Droge emerges from the hotbed of alternative rock with a troubadour's style. (He still wears plaid, though.)

June 11, 1995|Robert Hilburn | Robert Hilburn is The Times' pop music critic

You could hold casting calls for a month and not find anyone who looks more like your classic '60s troubadour than Pete Droge, a 26-year-old who gazes at the world through soft, penetrating eyes that seem constantly storing up images for future songs.

Wearing his guitar on his back as comfortably as an old jacket, the lanky, six-foot singer-songwriter is filled with the same sense of wanderlust associated with the early Bob Dylan or James Taylor. He's one of those rare individuals who actually seem at home in a hotel room--or an airport lounge.

All this may tie him to one of pop-rock's richest traditions, but it stamped Droge as a definite outsider in the grunge-dominated Seattle club scene, where he honed his craft in the early '90s.

With record scouts tossing six-figure contracts in the air like confetti in search of the next hard-rocking Nirvana or Pearl Jam, many young, folk-minded rock musicians would have been tempted to change their style in hopes of a shortcut to stardom.

Not Droge, who writes about the longing and doubts of relationships with the softer, more customized edge found in the work of his singer-songwriter heroes, including Dylan, Neil Young, Tom Petty and Gram Parsons.

"I was definitely doing something completely different," the easygoing songwriter says, sitting on a chair in his West Hollywood hotel room. "I was in a band, but it was much more traditional and rootsy, more country than the kind of things the record companies were looking for.

"But I always felt there was a place for me because the artists I admired had made records and had enjoyed successful careers. My thinking, I guess, was 'There may not be any spot for me now, but there will be one someday.' "

Droge was proved right when his debut album, "Necktie Second," was released early last year by American Recordings and was well received by radio's new adult album alternative format. One of Droge's songs, the quirky and atypical "If You Don't Love Me (I'll Kill Myself)," also landed a spot in the hit "Dumb and Dumber" soundtrack.

The young performer's main exposure, however, has come from being the opening act on high-profile tours with such acts as Petty, Melissa Etheridge and Sheryl Crow. His dates this spring with Petty went so well that Droge has been invited back for another leg of the tour.

"Pete might have been outside the [hard-core Seattle scene], but all the musicians in town liked to listen to his band--from Jerry Cantrell [of Alice in Chains] to Eddie Vedder," says Kelly Curtis, who manages Droge as well as Vedder's band, Pearl Jam.

"Personally, his music reminded me of the music I've always liked over the years--a little bit of Neil Young, a little bit of Dylan, a little bit of Petty. I didn't so much think, 'Hey, this could be big.' I just thought, 'Hey, this is good.' "

Droge comes to the wanderlust troubadour tradition naturally. He was born March 11, 1969, in Eugene, Ore., and was less than a month old when he was adopted by a Minneapolis couple. His new mother was an elementary school teacher, and his father set up group homes for troubled juveniles.

After four years, the family, including an older brother, moved to South Dakota and then to St. Louis before settling in the late '70s in the Seattle area; Droge lived there until moving to Portland, Ore., two years ago.

After an early infatuation with the music and costuming of cartoon rockers KISS, Droge began rummaging through his parents' '60s-dominated record collection as he entered junior high school, and he discovered the music that eventually shaped his vision.

He responded especially to the restlessness reflected in such songs as Paul Simon's "The Boxer" and Dylan's "Like a Rolling Stone."

"I was intrigued by the idea of someone who is a sort of nomad and doesn't have any ties, any normal lifestyle--someone who is constantly in search of new adventures, new experiences," he says.

D roge, who started writing songs during his late teens, was fronting a band called Ramadillo by his early 20s and working day jobs as a dishwasher, busboy and pizza cook.

At the pizza joint, he and co-worker Mike McCready spent their free time talking about music, sharing favorite tapes. McCready, now a guitarist in Pearl Jam, introduced Droge to the music of the late Gram Parsons, whose work in the late '60s and '70s with the Flying Burrito Brothers forged a masterful blend of country emotion and hard-edged rock observation.

"I fell in love with the fragileness of his voice," Droge says of Parsons. "He wasn't a great singer in a technical sense, but he sang with such urgency and immediacy. The songs too were very simple and pure--stories about the choices people have.

"There was also these religious overtones to a lot of what he did, mixing gospel and rock 'n' roll elements about temptation and salvation in ways that left you wondering just where he stood. It's not too clear to you."

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