Red-carpet country talent in a cool, honky-tonk vibe

by Alison Bonaguro

(Special to the Tribune Published- June 29, 2007


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 the love."

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 authenticity."

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 fall.

"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 said.

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 diary."

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 stage."

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 show."

"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 the line."

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 him."

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 the concert-goer."

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, Lisle (eyestotheskiesfestival.com)

Sunday -- Craig Morgan, Chicago Country Music Festival, Grant Park (cityofchicago.org)

Tuesday -- Trent Tomlinson, Naperville Ribfest (ribfest.net)

July 10 -- Randy Rogers Band, Joe's Bar, Chicago (joesbar.com)

July 14 -- Little Nashville, Rock Around the Block, at Lincoln and Addison, Chicago (starevents.com)

July 18 -- Gary Allan, Kane Country Fair, Saint Charles (kanecountyfair.com)

July 19 -- Keith Anderson, Country Thunder, Twin Lakes, Wisc. (countrythunder.com)

July 20 -- Travis Tritt, Festival of Lakes in Hammond, Ind. (festival.gohammond.com)

July 21 -- Billy Currington and Trace Adkins, Porter County Fair, Valparaiso, Ind. (portercofair.org)

July 25 -- Joe Nichols, DuPage Country Fair, Wheaton (dupagecountyfair.org)

Aug. 10 -- Lonestar, Country Club Hills Theatre (countryclubhillstheater.org)

Aug. 31 -- Jason Michael Carroll, On the Waterfront, Rockford (onthewaterfront.com)

Sept. 5 -- Phil Vassar, Sandwich Fair, Southern DeKalb County (sandwichfair.com)

---------- onthetown@tribune.com Copyright 2007, Chicago Tribune

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