Cue Country and Midwestern

A week from Monday is the “official” release date (April 24) for Country and Midwestern (University of Chicago Press), although pre-orders are being fulfilled as I write this. It’s also showing up in bookstores, from Women & Children First on Chicago’s North Side to 57th Street Books on the South Side.

Thank you to everyone who purchased the books months or weeks in advance, and who even have been posting photos of their copies on social media. The response was unexpected and is appreciated!

Hey, I’m Talking To You!

A few weeks ago I sat down at Carol’s Pub — the last storefront honkytonk in Chicago — with Tommy Henry, host of the popular Chicago History Podcast. I had a great time with Tommy, who later told me the episode was the most listened to in his podcast’s history — and he’s produced more than 600 of them.

Listen to the episode here. Because of the demand, he released a second episode titled EXTRAS, featuring parts of our conversation that didn’t make the first installment. Tune into that episode here.

Save the Date(s)

That’s right, events have been added to the Country and Midwestern periodic book tour, and more are in the works. (Nashville and New Orleans dates hopefully soon!) Just added are dates in Louisville, Milwaukee, Madison, and a special fall event in Winnetka.

My early idea was to make the events about the music, not me. (Unless you’re Art Rimbaud, Erma Bombeck, or Hunter Thompson, writers are ho-hum live entertainers.) I’d much rather listen to writers interviewed by someone who knows the work deeply. That’s why these book events are mostly designed around either musicians or conversations — or both.

Below is a rundown of events currently on the books. It’s summer, come out! If you are in Chicago, each event is different, which makes the case to double up. (The bookings are largely in establishments with bars for a reason.)

A few highlights:

May 8 at the Park West is a taping of Sound Opinions and will feature a conversation with Jim DeRogatis and Greg Kot; it’ll be followed by a full set of music by Robbie Fulks and his band performing songs from his terrific new bluegrass record on Compass Records.

June 8 at Boswell Book Company in Milwaukee will be a conversation between me and musician Paul Cebar, the ultimate Milwaukeean. I’m beyond grateful Paul agreed to do this!

June 10 at the Hideout is a reunion of the Texas Rubies, a duo that was the first to play Appalachian music in the punk era of the late 1980s and early 1990s. I’ll join Jane Baxter Miller, Kelly Kessler, and Paul Durica, director of exhibitions at the Chicago History Museum, in conversation.

June 20 at Gman Tavern, next to Metro and down Clark St. from Wrigley Field, is a conversation about the book followed by a special performance by Danny Black of The Blacks, the long, lost band that stood tall in the alt-country era of the late 1990s and beyond. Danny no longer lives in Chicago, but he put together a special band just for this!

July 10 at the Harold Washington Library is a special look at the pioneering band Special Consensus, featuring co-founders Greg Cahill and Marc Edelstein, along with mandolin great Don Stiernberg and guitarist Chris Walz. Ace Chicago journalist Monica Eng is moderating a discussion that’ll go deep into the bluegrass scene of the 1970s in Chicago.

Below are details, links, more events, and everything else you need to know.

May 2, 2023 | St. Louis, MO


Left Bank Books, the oldest and largest independent book seller in St. Louis, is hosting a conversation with Mark Guarino. 7 p.m. Reservations are required here.

May 8, 2023 | Chicago, IL


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. A live taping is followed by a full show by Robbie Fulks and his band featuring songs from his upcoming album on Compass Records. 7-9:30 p.m. This is a ticketed event. Click here to purchase!

May 11, 2023 | Louisville, KY


Carmichael’s, Louisville’s finest independent book seller since 1978, is hosting a conversation with Mark Guarino and Nathan Salsburg, Curator at the Lomax Association for Cultural Equity. 7 p.m.

May 12, 2023 | Cleveland, OH


An in-store conversation with Mark Guarino at Visible Voice Books and feature a country music DJ set by Cleveland’s Dollar Country! Details to come.

May 27, 2023 | Chicago, IL


An in-store conversation between Mark and musician Lawrence Peters at Rattleback Records in Andersonville that will focus as 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! 11 a.m.

May 28, 2023 | Madison, WI


A conversation and book signing with Mark at Leopold’s Books Bar Cafe, an independent bookstore, bar, and coffeeshop in Madison. Time TBD!

June 8, 2023 | Milwaukee, WI


Milwaukee’s greatest independent book seller is hosting a conversation between Mark Guarino and musician Paul Cebar. 6:30 p.m. It’s free, but reservations are required here.

June 10, 2023 | Chicago, IL


A special celebration of Country and Midwestern at the Hideout, ground zero for the alt-country scene in the 1990’s and beyond. Featuring a conversation with Mark Guarino followed by a special reunion of the Texas Rubies (Kelly Kessler and Jane Baxter Miller), a pioneering country duo that emerged during Chicago’s punk era of the late 1980s and early 1990s. 5 p.m.

June 20, 2023 | Chicago, IL


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. Featuring a set of live music from Danny Black (The Blacks) and band. 7 p.m.

June 25, 2023 | Oak Park, IL


A conversation at the Oak Park River Forest Museum with Mark Guarino that will focus on Oak Park’s role in the history of country and folk music via the Gate of Horn, the Old Town School of Folk Music, Flying Fish Records, and more. 3 p.m.

July 20, 2023 | Chicago, IL


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. The focus of this event is the 1970s bluegrass scene in Chicago and will feature a conversation (and performance by) Special Consensus founder Greg Cahill, mandolinist Don Stiernberg, bassist Marc Edelstein, and guitarist Chris Waltz! Come learn about Chicago’s role in the history of bluegrass! Moderated by veteran Chicago journalist Monica Eng. 6-7:30 p.m. Click here to learn more!

September 21, 2023 | Winnetka, IL


A conversation with Mark Guarino at the Winnetka Public Library on Chicago’s North Shore. Books will be on hand for purchase by Winnetka’s Book Stall, one of the Chicago area’s finest independent booksellers. Time TBD.

Music to Know Now

Maybe there’s something in the air, but this book is out around the same time many of the artists in its pages are releasing new records.

A year ago Wilco released Cruel Country, a double album — I wrote about it for the Chicago Reader — and in October the band played a show at Carol’s Pub, an Uptown bar documented in the book.

Other artists from the book are also out with new music and touring all year:

Robbie Fulks, who wrote Country and Midwestern’s foreword, is out with Bluegrass Vacation on Nashville’s eclectic Compass Records label. Check out this excellent Q/A in Variety that came out last week.

The Waco Brothers just released The Men That God Forgot, their first record in seven years!

Califone, the long-running project of Tim Rutili, is back with Villagers, out May 29 but available for pre-order now.

Last year Nora O’Connor, once with The Blacks, released My Heart, a stunning collection of new songs on Chicago’s Pravda label.

Not long ago, Special Consensus released Chicago Barn Dance, a nod to the WLS Barn Dance featuring songs that either relate to Chicago or written by songwriters from the city. Featuring guests artists like Becky Buller, Mike Barnett, Robbie Fulks and Alison Brown.

Also last year, Andrew Bird released Inside Problems, his new record he is touring on this summer.

Even Bloodshot Records, the vanguard label of alt-country, is back (sorta). Bloodshot folded in 2021 — I wrote about that here — but new owners Exceleration Music is starting to release new music under the Bloodshot brand. First in line is Music Man by veteran Nashville songwriter Layng Martine Jr.

Finally, Country and Midwestern features nearly 40 photographs. Two of its photographers, Marty Perez and Paul Natkin, have recent books of their work out. You can find Marty’s Kill A Punk For Rock & Roll – 1976-2019, and Paul’s Natkin: The Moment of Truth via Amazon or your local bookstore.

The Lost Barn Dance Photos

The foundational story of country music in Chicago is the Barn Dance on WLS, a pioneering radio program that started in 1924 and lasted for decades. Until the end of World War II, the Barn Dance was the most popular radio show of its kind, launched the careers of many performers, and established the marketing blueprint for the genre that is still followed today.

You’ll need to read the book to get the full story. But a few months ago, while browsing eBay, I came across a treasure trove of personal photos taken in the 1920s and 1930s of Barn Dance performers on the streets of Chicago and on the road. Judging by the smiles and poses, these are casual snaps by an amateur photographer who was either part of the show, or a close personal friend of its cast. Either way, what a find!

What I love about the photos is that they capture the performers in unguarded moments, either in their outfits for the show — besides being a radio show, the Barn Dance toured theaters and fairs — or in street clothes. Here are just a few of them, unveiled to the world for the first time since being slid into a scrapbook and, until now, hidden from the world.

Enjoy, and until next time — which will be soon — thanks for reading.

Outside the Prairie Farmer offices on Washington Blvd. stands Lily May Ledford, a clawhammer banjo and fiddle player who was in the Coon Creek Girls, an all-woman string group. A Kentucky native, she was later “rediscovered” during the folk revival of the 1960s where she played for a new generation of fans.
The Prairie Ramblers: Charles Gilbert “Chick” Hurt on mandola and four-string tenor banjo, Floyd “Salty” Holmes on guitar, Shelby David “Tex” Atchinson on fiddle, and Jack Taylor on bass. They played hot and clean, combining a rural sensibility with western swing. Bill Monroe was an early fan.
Hubert “Shorty” Carson atop a horse in what is now Chicago’s West Loop. He was a member of The Ranch Boys, a western singing group. Here’s their version of “Casey Jones.”
Homer Edgar “Slim” Miller, a lanky comedian and fiddler from Indiana, with two fans. Miller was a member of the Cumberland Ridge Runners, a flagship group for WLS. Their live performances included an appearance at the 1933 World’s Fair in Chicago.
Rusty Gill and Howard Black, otherwise known as the Hoosier Sod Brothers, in 1938.
The Prairie Sweethearts, Elsie Martin and Kay Reinberg, outside the studio in 1939.
Karl Davis, Doc Hopkins, and Hartford Taylor. Davis and Taylor were Karl and Harty, a mandolin-and-guitar duo originally from Kentucky that recorded for major labels Columbia and Capitol Records. Their songs were later covered by Hank Snow, Porter Wagoner, Marty Robbins, Jerry Garcia, Johnny Cash, the Everly Brothers, and even Norah Jones and Billie Joe Armstrong of Green Day.

Doc Hopkins, also a Kentucky native, was a mandolin player who was considered a direct influence on later bluegrass players. Eventually he was “rediscovered” during the 1960s folk revival.

A cast member, unknown, poses with Stand By, the weekly magazine WLS published to promote the Barn Dance.
Bob Ballentine, a Barn Dance musician, stands outside the Prairie Farmer offices at 1230 W. Washington Blvd. Prairie Farmer magazine owned WLS.
The DeZurick Sisters, Mary Jane and Carolyn DeZurik. One of the rare Barn Dance acts to originate from the upper Midwest, they were born on a Dutch dairy farm in Royalton, Minnesota. Self-taught singers and “trick yodelers” who had the unusual ability to imitate barnyard animals, all kinds of game, and the cackle of roosters and hens, they were an immediate hit.

In 1938, they recorded six sides for Vocalion and two years later moved to Hollywood to star in Barnyard Follies, a full-length musical comedy for Republic Pictures.

Check out Carolyn prepping her own snap of the photographer!

Skeeter Bonn, Tex Atchison, and Pokey Martin backstage during a WLS road show performance.