As a devotee of from-the-gut tunesmiths, 25-year-old Pete Droge isn't afraid to write songs in which he wears his heart on his flannel sleeve. But performing them before his musical idols is another story.

For example, Droge found it "overwhelming" to appear at last year's benefit for California's Bridge School, an event that featured acts such as Neil Young and Crazy Horse, the Indigo Girls, Pearl Jam and Mazzy Star. It was intense enough to watch Young perform up close, he says--but doing so with guitar in hand while waiting to face a crowd of 20,000 was "a pretty mind-boggling thing...It was like, holy shit, here I am suddenly walking out on stage right after Neil Young has just played."

The performance order was appropriate, however, since Droge--whose record collection to this day is dominated by the work of such creaky rock classicists as Creedence Clearwater Revival and Tom Petty--aspires to follow the path cut by Young and his contemporaries. And thus far, he's made a good start. The singer has a major-label deal (with the American Recordings label), and his debut album, Necktie Second, has spawned a near hit--the unexpectedly jaunty single "If You Don't Love Me (I'll Kill Myself)."

This modest success caught Droge by surprise. "I didn't really expect much," he admits, "because I've learned that when you expect things, they don't work out exactly like you'd planned them." With characteristic understatement, he goes on to say, "If I had had expectations, I think things would have exceeded them."

The first music Droge remembers hearing while growing up in the Seattle area were songs from his father's Bob Dylan albums. He also recalls hearing the work of Seventies popmeisters Elton John, Kris Kristofferson and Fleetwood Mac "billowing" from his family's massive speaker set. He soon learned to play piano and ukulele--instruments to which he had access thanks to his mother, an elementary school music teacher. A recording made when Droge was four captured the youngster strumming away and shouting, "You gotta get outta this town!"

After spending some time on the Seattle music scene, Droge did just that. He'd been able to land a fair number of gigs as a member of acts like Ramadillo, a country/blues/rock outfit, but he says the record-company talent scouts who were haunting the city back then "weren't coming up to sign bands like mine." So, with no girlfriend and no "shitty job" to hold him back, he set out for Portland, Oregon, where he's currently headquartered.

Still, Droge has a few remaining Seattle connections--and they've paid off. Pearl Jam's Mike McCready oversaw the demos that brought Droge to the attention of Brendan O'Brien, who produced Pearl Jam's Vs. album. In short order, reps from the American label came calling.

Following Necktie's release last summer, Droge hit the road--and he's seldom left it since. Because he's alternated between headlining small shows and opening for more established performers (he was part of Melissa Etheridge's recent arena tour), he's grown accustomed to facing crowds of wildly different sizes on consecutive nights. But Droge insists that his preference is "just to play" rather than to be part of an "obnoxious" record-company push.

Because audiences have begun to exhibit greater familiarity with his material, Droge believes this strategy is working. But the real boost to his name recognition may be traceable to Dumb and Dumber, the Jim Carrey blockbuster. "If You Don't Love Me" was chosen as the single from the film's soundtrack, leading to increases in the track's already rising airplay. It's too soon to tell if such an association will help or hinder his career, Droge admits, but he says that the tune remains a rousing set-closer--and "a hell of a lot of fun to play."

The rest of Necktie's material tends toward midtempo balladry like "Faith in You" and the Dylanesque "Hampton Inn Room 306," which Droge delivers in a world-weary drawl that invites favorable comparison to influences as diverse as Hank Williams Sr. and Cracker's David Lowery. The quality is consistent, as you would expect from someone whose creative credo is, "Don't sway, because if you sway, you lose balance. You lose your grip with your muse."

Droge hasn't suffered this fate, because he follows his own advice. "Avoid thinking too much about what you're creating," he says, "because there's a lot of pitfalls in thinking about what you're doing. If you're writing a song and you stop in the middle of it and think, `Well, shit, are people going to like this?' you're doomed."

Sheryl Crow, with Freedy Johnston and Pete Droge. 7:30 p.m. Saturday, February 25, Paramount Theatre, 1621 Glenarm Place, $18, 830-


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