No Cubs, just country at Wrigley

by Alison Bonaguro

Special to the Tribune

Published July 17, 2009


What reason could a country band possibly have for coming into the big city? Size.

Rascal Flatts, the multiplatinum selling trio and reigning Country Music Association vocal group of the year, have outgrown the other venues around Chicagoland.

So they're playing Wrigley Field. It's the first country band to ever be booked there. That's huge.

Last year, the approximately 28,000-capacity First Midwest Bank Amphitheatre in Tinley Park was big enough. But, according to Brian O'Connell of concert promoter Live Nation, that show broke the attendance record, making it the top-selling country concert at the venue ever. So on to bigger (40,000-plus capacity) digs. And one with all kinds of seating opportunities. You can watch from the front row of the outfield, sit up high or go into Wrigleyville and take it all in from a rooftop vantage.

But bringing this show into Wrigley is a double-edged sword. It's big enough, but is it convenient enough? Chicago is one of the genre's most important markets for live and recorded country music. The big names -- even the rookie artists -- count on this city to be a top sales market.

Between album sales and the more than 1 million area country radio listeners, there are more than enough fans to fill Wrigley. But if fans are from far-flung suburbs and counties outside the public transportation routes, it's hard to know if they would make the trip. An outlying venue (with better parking) might have been a better option, had anyone asked the fans.

There's also some who-can-book-the-bigger-sports-arena contest between Rascal Flatts and Kenny Chesney. When Chesney played the 60,000-plus-capacity Soldier Field last month, it wasn't quite sold out, but to say you came close gives you clout that's hard to beat.

On deck: Vince Gill and Darius Rucker

While Rascal Flatts might've been able to fill the field on their own, they cast a wider net to pack the bill at this show. Vince Gill will be joining the band and tour mate Darius Rucker, which means the seats will be full of fans of every side of the country coin. Pop-country, country-soul and the older, honky-tonk stuff.

That said, if what you want is to hear a song or two from Rucker's Hootie and the Blowfish heyday, you'll have to spend a lot of time and money to do so. (Although it's likely he'll sing "Only Wanna Be With You," at the very least.)

Gill, a 20-time Grammy winner, has influenced much of Rascal Flatts' music, as lead guitarist Joe Don Rooney made clear.

"Vince's talent is very deep, and he pulls from a lot of different styles," said Rooney. "He goes all honky-tonk, then can get jazzy and give a tender ballad some pop sensibility."

Gill will undoubtedly walk off the stage with a few new fans, which could be one reason why he's stretching his boundaries to fit in with this pop crowd.

Rounding out the country revelry is Rucker, who has been on a musical journey since fronting Hootie and the Blowfish throughout the mid- and late '90s. Now he has a country album ("Learn To Live"), and has been touring with Flatts all summer.

"He's always had country-ness to him," Rooney said of Rucker. "When he was with Hootie, he always waved a country flag, to a certain extent."

Fans new and old seem to agree. The songs have racked up enough spins and sales to make the African-American Rucker's race a non-issue. His debut country single, "Don't Think I Don't Think About It," his follow-up, "It Won't Be Like This for Long," and his third release, "Alright," have all skyrocketed to the top of the charts.

That's how open-minded country has become. But like Oprah Winfrey said when Rucker was on her show in April, country music is the real soul music.


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