by Alison Bonaguro
Special to the Tribune

(Published January 25, 2008


When a country star falls backward onto the waiting hands of a sea of fans, you know you're not at the Opry anymore. You're in Chicago, where the endless supply of live country music has earned a reputation for being as rowdy as it is rootsy.

True, our city's a good 500 miles north of Nashville. Yet, somehow, when an artist yells out that it's time for a "holler and swaller," fans know exactly what to do. (Let out a 'yee haw,' then take a swig of your drink.) Why is that? Are we all closet rednecks? Or is it because buried underneath Chicago's hip-hop, blues, jazz and soul cultures, this is still a Midwestern town. A heartland that beats loud, especially when it's backed by a steel guitar.

Maybe it is our Midwestern mind-set that creates such a solid foundation for live country music. Or maybe, it's something less tangible.

"Chicago just has a kind of vibe; it's such a happening town," country star Dierks Bentley told the Tribune says during a call from Nashville. "You wanna be there and feel that heartbeat."

Bentley, who's nominated for four Grammys this year, is known for his Chicago stage dives. But now that he's playing the Rosemont Theatre, instead of smaller clubs, can he still pull off that honky-tonk stunt? "I'm not afraid. If there's a little pit in front of the stage, we'll give it a try."

Bentley's music, and the rest of what you hear on US99, Country Music Television, Great American Country, CDs and downloads is all well and good. Hearing it live, though, is about more than the sound. The banjos are still there. The twang's still thick. And the lyrics still tell a story. But live, you can begin to understand why country's popularity is thriving despite the plummeting album sales in other genres.

Loving it live

It wasn't always this way, though. About five years ago, Ed Warm, co-owner of Joe's Bar on the North Side, says he knew that Chicago had the biggest country station -- US99 -- yet he says the only place to hear the music live was in the suburbs.

"As a downtown dweller, I knew there were people that wouldn't go out there, yet there had to be tens of thousands of fans down here. I figured if no one showed up to see the show, at least I'd enjoy it myself," says Warm.

But they did show up, and fans have been packing Joe's Bar and other venues ever since.

"Ed Warm is the pioneer. He saw that nobody was doing [country]. He saw the void, because the big boys like Jam and LiveNation weren't touching it," says Duff Rice, founder of concert promotion group Duff Entertainment.

The shows at Joe's Bar are not just for city folk, either. Marci Braun, music director for US99, says, "The cool thing is that our country shows are spread out and that listeners are so passionate, they'll travel wherever" to see shows.

What's your pleasure?

And in Chicago, you can hear it all. Seeing Keith Urban at the Allstate Arena is definitely one way to go. But smaller-bars-turned-honky-tonks are full of spectacular house bands and big acts. If mainstream country's not your thing, try the House of Blues or FitzGerald's for more alt-country acts such as the Waco Brothers and Chicago's own Robbie Fulks, who calls country music a broad quilt of styles, adding that "people in Downers Grove have more in common with truck drivers than you might think." Farther out, you can get off your bar stool and try line dancing. Both the Cadillac Ranch in Bartlett and the Sundance Saloon in Waukegan offer complimentary lessons for cowboy rookies.

Even Mayor Richard Daley is in on the action.

"As a fan of country, I feel that Chicago has one of the best country music gatherings outside of Nashville," he says. In fact, the mayor's office is making the Chicago Country Music Festival a stand-alone event at Soldier Field on Oct. 11-12.

If you're one of Chicago's country fans, you know the music has come a long way since Haggard, Cash and Hank Sr. ruled the air. Take Taylor Swift. Her debut album has sold more than 2 million copies.

"I fell in love with country when the Dixie Chicks, Faith Hill and Shania Twain were [first] out," the teen says. Swift says she adored the sounds of the banjo and fiddle, and that was her inspiration. "As a kid, I was in my bedroom writing songs trying to figure out how I could do it. I put my all into it.

Now I get so consumed I don't ever want to go home. I would be in absolute agony if I couldn't tour."

So when her latest No. 1 single, "Our Song," comes on the radio, the lyrics feel very right now, with instruments that still sound traditional. It's a paradox that just works: "Our song is the slamming screen door, sneakin' out late tappin' on your window, when we're on the phone and you talk real slow, 'cause it's late and your momma don't know."

Phil Vassar, another Nashville hitmaker, stands out by taking a Yamaha grand piano and making it sound more country than a piano ever could. "For years, piano was considered just a classical instrument. But guys like Billy Joel and Elton John were rocking it," Vassar says. "So I took it from there and made it more of a percussive instrument."

Asked to describe today's country sound, Warm says, "If the classic rock we grew up on came out today, they'd put a fiddle or steel guitar to it and play it on country radio."

Fan spectrum

While someone like Warm has the credibility to try to describe the music, it's nearly impossible to describe Chicago country fans. The 60-year-old guy who liked country before country was cool is worlds away from the 25-year-old trying to flirt her way into the Rascal Flatts meet and greet. And then there are all the ones in between.

Chicago's country radio station, US99 (WUSN-FM 99.5), though, says it has a handle on who its listeners are. According to Billboard magazine, there are 2,054 country stations in the United States, making it the top format. And in the Chicago area, where there are 8.5 million people, there's massive exposure potential, making US99 tops in the nation.

"The driving force behind US99's success is the collar counties like Joliet, McHenry, Will and Kendall," says US99's Braun. "The heaviest listeners are female, middle class, with an annual household income of about" $60,000 to $70,000. "They are such passionate fans and loyal listeners."

Guys like Bentley know that vibrant country radio keeps his fans coming out.

"Our show draws fans together. And we keep trying to evolve. Getting back on the bus and back on stage, that's when you find those moments when it all comes together."

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Upcoming shows

Feb. 1: Taylor Swift, Rialto Square Theatre, 15 E. Van Buren St., Joliet, 815-726-7171

Feb. 2: Waco Brothers, FitzGerald's, 6615 Roosevelt Rd., Berwyn, 708-788-2118

Feb. 8: John Prine, Chicago Theatre, 175 N. State St., Chicago, 312-902-1500

Feb. 14: Phil Vassar, Chicago Theatre

Feb. 14: Jennifer Hanson, Joe's Bar, 940 W. Weed St., Chicago, 312-337-3486

Feb. 15: Sawyer Brown/Rissi Palmer/Chris Young/Carolyn Dawn Johnson, Sears Centre, 5333 Prairie Stone Parkway, Hoffman Estates, 847-649-2270

Feb. 22: Dierks Bentley, Rosemont Theatre, 5400 N. River Rd., Rosemont 847-671-5100

Feb. 29 and March 1: Dolly Parton, Chicago Theatre

Feb. 29: Emerson Drive, Raue Center for the Arts, 26 N. Williams St., Crystal Lake, 815-356-9212

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Carol's Pub, 4659 N. Clark St.
Chicago Theatre, 175 N. State St.
House of Blues, 329 N Dearborn St.
Joe's Bar, 940 W. Weed St.
Cadillac Ranch, 1175 W. Lake, Bartlett
First Midwest Bank Amphitheatre, 19100 South Ridgeland Ave., Tinley Park
FitzGerald's, 6615 Roosevelt Rd., Berwyn
Genesee Theatre, 203 N. Genesse St., Waukegan
Raue Center for the Arts, 26 N. Williams St., Crystal Lake
Rialto Square Theatre, 15 E. Van Buren St., Joliet
Rosemont Theatre, 5400 N. River Rd., Rosemont
Sundance Saloon, 300 Lakehurst Rd., Waukegan

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Where to go for what to wear

Want to add a little western flair to an outfit? Check out a few of the most authentic spots for cowboy gear this side of Nashville:
Alcala's, 1733 W. Chicago Ave., 312-226-0152
Jessica's Western Wear, 7015 N. Clark St., 773-465-9575
Out of the West, 1021 W. Armitage Ave., 773-404-9378

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