Yes, Tim McGraw will play the United Center. And yes,
Kenny Chesney will rock Tinley Park. The country
artists who dominate the charts will soon be bearing
down on our stadiums and sheds with their
multimillion-dollar summer tours. But what about the
smaller stages scattered across our concert landscape?
For about the price of one beer at the Allstate Arena,
you can get into the following fairs, festivals and
bars to hear some of Nashville's most underrated acts.
They aren't household names, nor are they constantly
on the radio. They don't have the clout to sell 20,000
tickets either, but by no means are these performers
any less talented.
Billy Currington, who will play the Porter Country
Fair in July, can sing as well as any country
mega-star. He's the sexy voice behind hits such as the
recent No. 1 single "Good Directions." He may be a few
years away from selling out big shows, and for now
loves playing the smaller venues.
"There's nothing not to like" about smaller gigs, said
Currington. "They don't pay as much, but you can't do
shows all the time for the money. You gotta do it for
According to Ken Tucker, Billboard Magazine country
music correspondent, Currington's the real deal. "He's
imaged as a pretty boy, but there's more to him that
just the biceps," Tucker said. "There's substance and
Fans make it worth their while, too. Keith Anderson
likes it best when the front row's full of people who
want to participate.
"I'm not Celine Dion," Anderson said. "These are not
listening shows. Anderson will be bringing his
powerful presence to Country Thunder in Twin Lakes,
where you can sing along to old stuff such as "Pickin'
Wildflowers," or new tunes from his album due out this
"When you pour your heart out into a piece of music
and have fans sing that back to you? There's nothing
that feels that good," Anderson said.
Smaller, up-and-coming acts such as Anderson know that
good songwriting helps. "You have to keep your
songwriting radars open to things and phrases and
emotions, and then you write them down," Anderson
Trent Tomlinson, who will play Naperville Ribfest next
week, is another artist taking the personal approach
to writing songs, calling his output "just stories
from my life.".
Lia Knight, host of the syndicated country radio "Lia
Show," thinks part of Tomlinson's charm is the way he
exposes himself in his music. "It's so honest," Knight
said. "It makes you feel like you're reading someone's
Tomlinson has built a solid following playing his
honest songs at shows such as Ribfest. "When you see
die-hard country fans, they're there for all the right
reasons," said Tomlinson. "If they can stay out in hot
sun, so can I."
Craig Morgan's had a handful of successes on the
country and pop charts, and will be hitting the
Petrillo Band Shell during the Taste of Chicago. "I
love coming to Chicago. But I live off a dirt road, so
I can pee off my back porch," he admitted. "Can't do
that in the city." It's his refreshing redneck candor
that makes Morgan's shows so entertaining. He loves
the crowds at these shows. And Chet Flippo, editorial
director at Country Music Television, knows why.
"Country concerts grew from front-yard performances,
and have traditionally been informal affairs where
star and audience are not separated by moats and
goons," Flippo said.
Even Joe's Bar has the tendency to fall into honky
tonk mode for the summer. "Joe's just has that
'thing,' " said Randy Rogers of the Randy Rogers Band,
who will hit the venue's tiny stage on July 10. "I've
played a thousand venues and only a few have it."
But shows like this aren't just about the music. You
can soak up the steel guitar over pork chops, elephant
ears or Cajun tater tots. In fact, the food's one of
the only reasons JoDee Messina doesn't like these
smaller shows, as the singer admitted, "It's hard to
resist. I can smell those funnel cakes when I'm on
Factor in affordable ticket prices and easy parking
and you can see why these smaller shows' atmosphere
make the big tours pale in comparison. Plus, there are
no arena politics to get in the way.
"I was playing an arena and the crowd was right up to
stage packed in," said Currington. "Then four songs
in, the security guards start backing people up and
putting up barricades. That takes attention off the
"I love these shows because it's like you're hanging
out with the neighborhood," said Messina about her
upcoming show at Lisle's Eyes to the Skies Balloon
Festival. "Nobody will be in the nosebleeds."
Knight thinks that there's a recipe for underrated
artists to get the success they deserve, calling it a
"a mix of hunger, luck, timing and exposure. Artists
like this need all that to get pushed to the front of
Gary Allan was one example cited by Knight. Allan will
be at the Kane County Fair in July.
"I could listen to his 'Smoke Rings in the Dark' CD
over and over," said Knight. "It's a desert-island CD
for sure." But Allan seems content to play the small
stage where he can do his own thing, as opposed to
opening an arena tour where there are rules, limits
and a lot of empty seats. Tucker thinks that while
many artists are the product of their producers, guys
such as Allan have something different.
"Gary Allan knows who he is and what his sound is,"
said Tucker. "You get kind of a Chris Isaak feel from
There was a time (in 2005) when Brad Paisley played
the DuPage County Fair. Now, he's cracked the top 25
highest-grossing tours, raking in more than $27
million last year, according to Billboard magazine.
"Stadium and arena shows exist for only one reason: to
make the maximum amount of money as fast as possible,"
said Flippo. "They're not there for the enjoyment of
So before the promoters move in and steal these
talented, underrated acts from the small stages that
they do so enjoy, take some time this summer soaking
in all that carefree country music.
Mark your country calendar:
Sunday -- JoDee Messina, Eyes to the Skies Festival,
Sunday -- Craig Morgan, Chicago Country Music
Festival, Grant Park (cityofchicago.org)
Tuesday -- Trent Tomlinson, Naperville Ribfest
July 10 -- Randy Rogers Band, Joe's Bar, Chicago
July 14 -- Little Nashville, Rock Around the Block, at
Lincoln and Addison, Chicago (starevents.com)
July 18 -- Gary Allan, Kane Country Fair, Saint
July 19 -- Keith Anderson, Country Thunder, Twin
Lakes, Wisc. (countrythunder.com)
July 20 -- Travis Tritt, Festival of Lakes in Hammond,
July 21 -- Billy Currington and Trace Adkins, Porter
County Fair, Valparaiso, Ind. (portercofair.org)
July 25 -- Joe Nichols, DuPage Country Fair, Wheaton
Aug. 10 -- Lonestar, Country Club Hills Theatre
Aug. 31 -- Jason Michael Carroll, On the Waterfront,
Sept. 5 -- Phil Vassar, Sandwich Fair, Southern DeKalb
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