Welcome to the second installment of this newsletter, primed with the latest (and greatest?) news regarding COUNTRY AND MIDWESTERN: CHICAGO IN THE HISTORY OF COUNTRY MUSIC AND THE FOLK REVIVAL, out in April.
Country and Midwestern Gets Its Own Website!
The Internet would never lie. Country and Midwestern is indeed now the subject of its own website. Click through early and often to learn the latest events (there are many!) in the spring and summer, book reviews, photos, and the newsletter you are reading right now in blog form to share with others.
You can also subscribe others to this newsletter — even against their will! However, once in, they’ll be happy you did them the favor.
Come See Me Tremble!
Replacements fans will recognize that as a slight paraphrase of the title of a Paul Westerberg solo album. Regardless, I’ll be talking/trembling throughout the Chicago metropolitan area this spring and summer, also with dates in St. Louis and Cleveland already confirmed. (Stops in New Orleans, Madison, and the venerable Hideout in Chicago are in the works.)
I could tell you to visit the website to learn more, but why make you work? See below and visit the website for updates.
I’m beyond thrilled that Country and Midwestern foreword-er Robbie Fulks and his band will be joining the fun at the Park West with Jim DeRogatis and Greg Kot of Sound Opinions, the Lawrence Peters Outfit will perform at Rattleback Records, Danny Black will play a rare Chicago show at our Gman Tavern date following an interview with yours truly, and Dollar Country will spin vintage country tunes in Cleveland, a city that rocks! More artists and dates named soon.
(Speaking of Robbie, he has a new record out April 7 on Compass Records, the excellent and eclectic Nashville roots label, and is on tour everywhere this year. Listen to his new single here.)
May 1, St. Louis, MO
Left Bank Books, 399 N. Euclid Ave.
Left Bank Books, the oldest and largest independent book seller in St. Louis, is hosting a conversation with Mark Guarino. Details TBD.
May 8, Chicago, IL
Park West, 322 W. Armitage Ave.
The Chicago Humanities Festival and Sound Opinions host a launch party at the Park West! Featuring a conversation between Greg Kot and Jim DeRogatis and Mark Guarino. Live taping is followed by a full show by Robbie Fulks and his band. This is a ticketed event. Details TBD.
May 12, Cleveland, OH
Visible Voice Books, 2258 Professor Ave.
An in-store conversation with Mark Guarino at Visible Voice Books and feature a country music DJ set by Cleveland’s Dollar Country! 7 p.m.
May 27, Chicago, IL
Rattleback Records, 5405 N Clark St.
An in-store conversation at Rattleback Records in Andersonville that focuses on Uptown, the Chicago neighborhood that was the landing spot for thousands of Southerners last century and home for dozens of storefront honkytonks. Featuring a musical set by the Lawrence Peters Outfit! Time TBD.
June 20, Chicago, IL
Gman Tavern, 3740 N Clark St.
The Gman Tavern Author Series is hosting a Book Celebration featuring a conversation between Metro/Gman New Media and Civic Events Producer Jill Hopkins and Mark Guarino and followed by a live performance (and rare Chicago appearance) from Danny Black (The Blacks) and a special band including Janine O’Toole, Kip Rainey, Ryan Juravic, and John Lauler. Time TBD.
July 20, Chicago, IL
The Cindy Pritzker Auditorium at the Harold Washington Library, 400 S. State St.
A conversation with Mark Guarino at an event at the Harold Washington Library in the South Loop that helps celebrate the Chicago Public Library’s 150th anniversary. With a full-length set of music. Details and time TBD.
Country and Midwestern’s First Review
The book has been blurbed by many, but the first full-length book review is in! According to Booklist:
“Chicago’s distance from the Nashville industry has allowed for creative freedom that continues with the insurgent country of Bloodshot Records artists Ryan Adams and Robbie Fulks and the ‘old weird’ charms of Americana darlings Neko Case, Andrew Bird, and Kelly Hogan. With an epic scope, gorgeous photographs, and useful discographies, this is a vital contribution to the history of American music and required reading for country and folk music fans.”
Thanks, Freda Love Smith! Read her complete review here.
Nashville-based journalist Holly Gleason also recently chimed in about Country and Midwestern. She’s the editor of, and contributor to, Woman Walk The Line: How the Women of Country Music Changed Our Lives and a long-time chronicler of country music from Music City. Says Holly:
“Growing up in Oak Park, Mark Guarino was raised in the womb of Chicago’s vibrant and diverse music scene. This history of country, folk and beyond is a living, breathing document that offers the heartbeat that made songwriter John Prine an Americana icon, and an alternative country scene that impacts globally.”
Johnny Pitts, Uptown’s Merchant of Country
Located on Chicago’s North Side, Uptown is a lakeside neighborhood most connected with the South. About 3.3 million people left Appalachia between 1950 and 1969. Although southern whites traveled from 10 states to Chicago seeking work opportunities in the steel mills and other manufacturing plants, most Southerners originated from Kentucky and West Virginia. Sixty-five thousand Appalachians were living in Uptown alone by 1968.
The area struggled due to impoverished conditions, overpopulation because of slumlords dividing apartment buildings into smaller and smaller units, and gang violence. As urban renewal moved forward to gentrify the area and ultimately displace its residents, the Southerners confronted its most potent threat: the Chicago Police under the direction of former Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley.
One of those Southerners was Johnny Pitts, a young guitarist born April 26, 1936, in Alabama who arrived in Chicago in July 1956 to play the notorious rows of honkytonks that lined the streets of what is now known as the West Loop. The music was non-stop out of almost every storefront; gambling, sex, and speed made it hotter. “Downtown and Madison Street was your mecca of country music,” he told me in 2013. “I could work seven nights a week if I wanted to.”
Eventually, Johnny became a guitar salesman for David Wexler and Company, a wholesale instrument distributer, which flew him all over the world where he showcased the latest model guitars, five-string banjos, and mandolins.
But Johnny’s passion for performance never left him. In 1967, a peak time for Southerners throughout Uptown and the North Side, he opened The Johnny Pitts Musical Showcase, 4453 N. Broadway Avenue, an establishment that had it all: Gretsch, Gibson, Fender, Franklin, Martin, and Ovation guitars, sheet music, western wear, including those from famed West Coast clothing designer Nudie Cohn, who was known for elaborately stitched suits designed for Hank Williams, Gene Autry, and Porter Wagoner, and a recording studio.
If that wasn’t enough, on Saturday afternoons Pitts broadcast a live two-hour radio show on WEAW in Evanston that featured local talent plus traveling stars like Hank Snow and Flatt & Scruggs. The storefront was a country music kingdom, and he ruled the land. “Everything I ever wanted in my life I had in that store,” he told me.
The dream didn’t last. A fire extinguished the building and everything inside. Country and Midwestern tells Johnny’s full story in the context of the wider Uptown saga. I was lucky to have spent time with him before his death on July 2, 2016. Johnny lived in the same house he shared with his wife Marie in Chicago’s Ravenswood neighborhood. (She played guitar too.)
What I remember is how sharp Johnny’s memory was in remembering dates and addresses — he was invaluable in helping me locate long-shuttered clubs in the 1950s and 1960s — and there was no more entertaining or enthusiastic storyteller.
This book owes quite a lot to Johnny and dozens of others I interviewed over the last decade who, sadly, are no longer here. You don’t get closer to history than the people who walked the floorboards or picked the strings, so I’m grateful for the shared time.
The clashes that permeated Uptown in Johnny’s day are documented in Country and Midwestern; as the country music blared out of the bars that lined Wilson Avenue, Broadway Avenue, and Clark Street, the people who produced it struggled to simply get by. Their art and music, however, survive.
Until next time, thanks for reading.
PS: Thanks to Johnny and Lynn Strauch, his daughter, for the archival photos. The photo at the very top is of the Sundowners with Bonnie Guitar, the trailblazing guitarist and businesswoman who helped launch the careers of The Ventures and other artists in the 1960s.
Next month I’ll share more news, events, and unearthed photos that didn’t make the book’s final cut — or anywhere. Including almost a hundred unearthed personal photos of WLS Barn Dance stars from the 1920s and 1930s I stumbled across a few months ago that have never seen the light of day.