When you think of country music hotbeds, Chicago probably doesn’t spring to mind. But at one time, Chicago was the country music capitol of the world, before Nashville shoved it off the throne.
“Country music has long been low-profile or even underground in Chicago,” said Paul Tyler, musical historian and instructor at the Old Town School of Folk Music. “Surprising for a city that once had a large profile in the music business, and was a pioneer in the professionalization of country. Blues, gospel and polka became the musical icons for Chicago. It’s almost like the city wanted to forget its country roots.”
But after decades of neglect, the country music scene has experienced a rebirth, albeit a little louder that before, with fewer cowboy hats and more tattoos.
First, Some History
Chi-town country came about from an influx of Appalachian and Southern families heading north to work in Windy City factories. Luckily, they brought their guitars and fiddles with them. In its beginnings, live country music in Chicago was played mostly in living rooms and small public gatherings, but radio changed that, Tyler said. Namely, WLS-AM’s National Barn Dance radio show broadcast that ran from 1924 to 1959. Semi-professional bands and solo artists began appearing on local radio “as a means to advertise their schoolhouse shows,” Tyler said. “When a group had played out an area, they would move on to a new station in a new town.”
After World War II, a few country-music clubs sprang up along West Madison Avenue, but they would die out as local interest began to wane. The Barn Dance was eventually canceled by WLS, which changed formats entirely to rock n’ roll, but would survive on WGN-AM for almost another decade before finally succumbing to cancellation. Modern country music migrated down to Nashville and the Barn Dance’s competing radio program, the Grand Ole Opry.
But while the flame died down, an ember survived. Bluegrass and old-timey square-dance music kept things rolling from the 1960s through the 1990s at various clubs and the Old Town School of Folk. By all accounts, the biggest reason country survived was local legend the Sundowners, who held a residency at the Bar Double-R Ranch for several decades and had a reported repertoire of more than 25,000 songs. Despite being virtually unknown outside of the 312 area code, the Sundowners became a Willis Tower-size inspiration to the current (alt) country kings of Chicago: Robbie Fulks and Jon Langford.
Bloodshot Records founders Nan Warshaw and Rob Miller met in the early 1990s, spinning classic country records at Delilah’s.
“It really was the underground of the underground at the time,” Warshaw said. “We were looking for music that spoke to us personally—dark, intimate and filled with real-life struggle. Traditional country music had all that.”
Photo by Dee Annis
At least two of the bands from that era, the Volo Bogtrotters and Greg Cahill and The Special Consensus, remain active in Chicago. The Bogtrotters playing shows at Navy Pier, Chicago Summerdance and the Fox Valley Folk Festival this summer.
Following in their footsteps are a new wave of traditional and old-time musicians—chief among them Spitzer Space Telescope, Can I Get An Amen, Becky Levi and Honey Hole Johnson, who play under the auspices of the Old Lazarus Harp Collective at various venues around town. Bluegrass bands like the Wandering Boys and their more progressive brethren Growler can be seen playing local spots regularly.
Warshaw and Miller started their own record label a few years after meeting, eventually putting out acclaimed albums by Ryan Adams, the Old 97’s, Cory Branan and Ha Ha Tonka, among others. The pair found a kindred spirit in Langford, one of the founders of the British post-punk band the Mekons and a recent transplant to the city. Langford’s fingerprints are all over the label: he’s recorded numerous albums for Bloodshot as a solo artist as well as part of the Mekons, Waco Brothers (pictured on previous page), Pine Valley Cosmonauts, and other bands. An acclaimed visual artist as well, his work has appeared on numerous album covers and promo posters, as well as Bloodshot’s collaborations with local breweries and coffee roasters.
“Jon’s amazingly hardworking and prolific,” Warshaw said. “[If he wasn’t so talented] it would be disastrous, but everything he does is wonderful. He’s found an environment and a niche that allows him to be creative and thrive.”
Want to see some of these Chicago country bigwigs play? Here’s where to go.
Until earlier this year, Fulks had a weekly residency at this dive bar hidden away in an industrial area southwest of Lincoln Park. The ancient Old Style sign in front signifies what you’re getting inside Hideout, an unpretentious good time. Hundreds of people routinely cram into the wood-paneled space to witness performances from Devil in a Woodpile (currently doing a Thursday night residency) and Bobby Bare, Jr.
Just south of Wrigleyville in the Lake View neighborhood, Schubas is a great place to grab a beer and check out local and up-and-coming bands. When artists like Lydia Loveless get too big to play the 160-seat bar, they graduate to the larger Lincoln Hall performing space that’s attached.
Old Town School of Folk Music
When artists like Steve Earle, Dale Watson and Ray Benson return to the Windy City, they play the Old Town in Lincoln Square. The acoustics in the Maurer concert hall are amazing, and no seat is further than 45 feet from the stage. Be sure to show up early to walk around the two buildings, gaze at portraits of notable Chicagoans like John Prine, and hit up the well-stocked instrument store.
Rhett Miller name-checked the bar in the Old 97’s classic song “Barrier Reef,” but you won’t find it half-empty very often this year as the bar celebrates its 25th anniversary with a series of special concerts. While you’re enjoying bands like the Mountain Goats, try not to get creeped out by the rows and rows of baby heads staring at you.
Looking for a little bluegrass with your weekend brunch? Visit The General in the historic Logan Square neighborhood Saturday morning, as a rotating mix of local bluegrass artists serenade you over your eggs and coffee. (Be sure to try the El Presidente breakfast paired with a smoked bloody mary). If no bands are tickling your fancy, you can bring your favorite classic country LPs for their weekly Vinyl Night Thursdays or perhaps catch someone from the Bloodshot crew spinning records on the occasional Friday night. The $8 daily taco, beer and shot of bourbon special may be the best deal in Chicago.
If you’re looking for a more refined experience, grab dinner and a bottle of your favorite red at City Winery. The artist list is diverse, but expect to see roots artists like Roger Clynne and the Peacemakers, Kelly Willis and Rhett Miller fairly often. This is a strictly sit-down affair, so be sure to get your tickets early.
If you’re a fan of more modern country music, Bub City hosts up-and-coming artists like Old Dominion and Brent Cobb most nights. Because you can’t have country music without whiskey (or at least you shouldn’t), the bar has more than 100 different varieties of bourbons, ryes and more.
Take the Stage
So now you want to be a Chicago country star … or at least become one in your own mind.
Bub City has a live-band karaoke every Tuesday night. Thankfully you’ll hear as much traditional country—think George Jones and Merle Haggard—as you will songs about red solo cups and pickup trucks.
If you want to live like a country celebrity—at least for a night or two—book a room at the gorgeous Acme Hotel Company downtown. Select rooms come with an ESP LTD EC-256 six-string, but if you’re not one of the lucky ones, you can check one out from the front desk. Best of all, the guitars plug into a personal amp and headphones so your neighbors won’t hear you butcher any Johnny Cash songs. If you love the guitar, take it with you for $429.
If you still need lessons, the Old Town School of Folk Music offers multiweek adult classes for many styles of music and instruments. If you’re feeling confident, you can show up to one of their many jam sessions during the week.
After spending nearly a decade as a reporter for The Indianapolis Star, Robert Annis finally broke free of the shackles of gainful employment and now freelances full time, specializing in cycling and outdoor travel journalism.