Country and Midwestern is here

Welcome to the latest newsletter for Country and Midwestern: Chicago in the History of Country Music and the Folk Revival, published by the University of Chicago Press. (You can learn everything about the book via its own website.)

The book is officially in stores, physical and virtual, today!

About 10-plus years ago I decided to sit down and write a proposal for a book that would document why Chicago should be recognized for its important role in the development of country music. Previously, I worked as a music journalist covering a largely indie scene that I watched evolve and eventually push through into the mainstream. It was an exciting time, and within that time period I started tracking earlier threads to the music that weren’t in my lifetime but helped define the character of the music in Chicago. Chicago country and folk musicians were collaborative, less concerned about genre, and they were prone to experiment. In each time period they shaped an approach to country music that was more about capturing the spirit of where it came from and playing with modern sensibilities to make it relevant. That approach is especially present in the 1930s, the 1950s, the 1970s, and the 1990s. Free from the star-making machinery of both coasts and Nashville, the musicians in Chicago became wildly inventive and genre agnostic. I saw a kind of epic story in that.

The thing was, I had never written a book proposal and I wasn’t quite sure if the subject was long enough for a book. With the final product clocking in over 500 pages and hundreds of footnotes later, it appears I was wrong. The journey from then to today was long, but it was a story worth telling and I hope it will direct new attention to country and folk musicians in Chicago who have largely been forgotten by time and to those who are currently carrying the tradition established in Chicago long ago.

St. Louis, See You Next Week

I’ll be in the city that gave us Tennessee Williams and Chuck Berry talking Country and Midwestern next week! Join me Tuesday, May 2, in St. Louis at the terrific Left Bank Books, the city’s oldest and largest independent book seller, located at 399 Euclid Ave. Things get going at 7 p.m. Reservations are required here.

If you can’t make it, Left Bank Books is live streaming the event on their YouTube page. (I assure all viewers the camera is adding those pounds you see.)

New Orleans Added to Book Tour

New Orleans joins Chicago, St. Louis, Madison, Milwaukee, Cleveland, Louisville, Oak Park, and Wilmette this spring and summer in hosting a special event for Country and Midwestern. Join me Thursday, June 15, at Octavia Books, one of my favorite bookstores. It starts at 6 p.m. at 513 Octavia St. in the heart of Uptown. More to come on this special event.

I’m on WGN May 7

Long-time Chicago Tribune columnist Rick Kogan has been a great champion of Country and Midwestern throughout its writing. I am grateful that I’m his guest May 7, from 5:30-7 p.m., on WGN 720-AM (or stream via wgnradio.com). We’ll talk about the book and Rick will play some of his favorite songs from the different eras. Save the date and dial us in!

People Are Talking

Country and Midwestern is making the rounds on the blogs, podcasts, newspapers and magazines. (It’s not yet on TikTok, but hey, it’s never too late.)

Thank you, Robert Loerzel and WBEZ in Chicago for this great feature on Country and Midwesternwhich is comprehensive and features some great photos from the Gate of Horn, Old Town School and more. Robert has long documented a wide span of Chicago history, from true crime to the history of the Green Mill. Subscribe to his newsletter here.

I enjoyed talking country music and Chicago on City Cast Chicago, a daily podcast about the City That Works. Listen here.

Chicago Magazine picked out a few nuggets from the book to highlight. Did you know that Hank Williams performed at the Palmer House? They spilled one of the book’s finest finds. Read more here.

Former Chicago Tribune columnist Eric Zorn is now publishing the Picayune Sentinel, a weekly newsletter on Substack that examines the latest in city politics. He invited me to opine on a song that I feel sums up the country music experience in Chicago. Read what song I picked — and why — here!

More coverage is in the works; I’ll post more soon.

Meet Me at the Shop/Club/Theater/Etc.

Country and Midwestern hits the road starting next month. Join the conversation and music in the following fine cities.

May 2, 2023 | 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. 7 p.m. Reservations are required here.

May 8, 2023 | 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. 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 BOOKSTORE, 2720 FRANKFORT AVENUE

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

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! Details to come.

May 27, 2023 | Chicago, IL

RATTLEBACK RECORDS, 5405 N CLARK ST.

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

LEOPOLD’S BOOKS BAR CAFE, 1301 REGENT ST.

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

BOSWELL BOOK COMPANY, 2559 NORTH DOWNER AVE.

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

THE HIDEOUT, 1354 W. WABANSIA ST.

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 15, 2023 | New Orleans, LA

OCTAVIA BOOKS, 513 OCTAVIA ST.

Beautiful Octavia Books, in the heart of Uptown, is hosting a conversation and signing with Mark Guarino. Details TBD. 6 p.m.

June 20, 2023 | 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. Featuring a set of live music from Danny Black (The Blacks) and band. 7 p.m.

June 25, 2023 | Oak Park, IL

OAK PARK RIVER FOREST MUSEUM, 129 LAKE ST.

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

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. 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

WINNETKA PUBLIC LIBRARY, 768 OAK STREET

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.

The National Recovery Act

As expected, John Prine is a central figure in Country and Midwestern. He emerged from a prosperous singer-songwriter scene during Chicago’s “second folk boom” of the 1970s, found his voice while working the clubs, and recorded his seminal recordings while living in the Chicago area. (While Nashville claims him as a native son, Prine moved to Music City more than a decade after the release of his first record in 1971.)

I interviewed John a few times over the years for the book, both in person and on the phone. He never failed in emphasizing his fondness for Maywood, his hometown where he returned twice to play Proviso East, his former high school. During his final visit to the area in 2019, he even visited Val’s Halla in Oak Park where he talked with journalist Dave Hoekstra about his roots in the area. Val Camilletti, the long-time owner of the record shop and a friend, died a year earlier.

Country and Midwestern widens Prine’s story to look at his family and, in particular, the impact his older brother Dave Prine had on Chicago’s growing old-time music revival.

By trade, Dave was an electrical engineer, a career that gave him lifelong stability to support his musical pursuits. He learned fiddle and started playing with Tyler Wilson, a friend from Evanston, also an engineer. It was 1966 and the folk revival was dimming. Years earlier, the Friends of Old-Time Music in New York City had formed to promote early blues, country, and gospel performers in urban settings, which creatively fed the University of Chicago Folk Festival that launched that same year.

Prine’s greatest influence, the New Lost City Ramblers, served as the house band for both. Every year he attended the festival and their workshops. Over time, as most Old Town School of Folk Music students abandoned their Folkways records in favor of writing original songs, a “renegade element” in the school was organizing to keep the traditional songs alive.

The obvious outlet for their efforts, Prine figured, was a Friends of Old-Time Music chapter in Chicago.

“We just said ‘hell, we’re as good as they are, let’s do it’,” he said.

The first meeting was in the living room of a Victorian house Prine and his wife rented in Maywood. Over years the number of people attending the weekly picking jams grew and it became a location to trade tapes, share songs, and occasionally hop in cars together to travel to folk festivals in the South. Prine and Wilson eventually formed the National Recovery Act, which over the next decade performed throughout the Midwest and served as the only old-time music on a local scene dominated by singer-songwriters.

Tyler and Wilson played a variety of instruments — guitar, mandolin, banjo, dobro, autoharp, fiddle, even the crow call — and stocked their setlists with songs that could be too raw for modern ears. When they opened for Odetta at Evanston’s Amazing Grace folk club, some in the audience were repelled during a performance of “Pretty Polly,” a traditional murder ballad that ends with the murder of a woman in the woods. A fight broke out and the band stopped to cool things down. “It made us think a lot about the type of thing we were doing and that there might be people out there who would take offense,” Wilson said. From then on, note-for-note renditions of the original recordings became less important, and they felt freer to interpret.

The group found work in the many folk clubs that lined Lincoln Avenue in the early 1970s. That included a residency at the Kingston Mines Theatre Company, which produced experimental plays at 2356 N. Lincoln Avenue, a cavernous space that was once a machine shop. In 1971, the theater launched the world premiere of an original musical: Grease. The company hired the National Recovery Act for entertainment during intermission over its long run.

Once the theater folded, the National Recovery Act stayed behind for almost a decade to build an audience for its new owner who kept half of the original theater’s name. Kingston Mines hosted folk and bluegrass until 1982 when it moved to Halsted Street for a rebranding as a blues club, which is still in business today.

Teaching a Tradition

Dave Prine’s influence on at least two of his three younger brothers was profound. He is nine years older than John and 16 years older than Billy.

For John, Christmas 1960 produced a Silvertone guitar and a desire to dabble in early rock ‘n’ roll like Little Richard and Buddy Holly. Dave taught him three chords to start, but he didn’t stop there. “Dave’s big thing was ‘you gotta learn a song’. A lot of kids learn riffs, like ‘Satisfaction’ [by the Rolling Stones]. But Dave told us you really need to sit down and learn how to sing a song,” Billy Prine told me. So Dave introduced John to Ray Tate at the Old Town School of Folk Music and he started lessons.

Sensing his brother was a daydreamer, Dave fed him records by The Carter Family, Jimmie Rodgers, and Hank Williams. There were also field trips to the University of Chicago Folk Festival where the Prine brothers took in some of the people they heard on those records, like Elizabeth Cotten, Doc Watson, and The Stanley Brothers. The mentoring was casual, but it took hold. John started writing his own songs to little fanfare. One night, as the brothers were playing tunes by Charlie and Bill Monroe, John mentioned that he’d been dabbling in songwriting.

“Oh, that’s interesting. Will you play a couple for me?” asked his brother. It turned out that two or three of the songs would later end up on his first album.

“And he was writing this stuff as a teenager. It blew my mind,” Dave said.

Dave Prine and Tyler Wilson had a continual presence in the city’s old-time scene, which at the time was slightly underground due to the wider interest in artists with original material. Like Fred Holstein and others at that time, the National Recovery Act kept traditional music alive within that scene so it never fully disappeared.

Wilson had one other contribution to the folk scene in Chicago: Hogeye Music in Evanston. In 1978, he and his wife Joan Wilson, along with Anne Hills and Jan Burda, opened the music store at 1920 Central Street, which sold vintage instruments, records, and hosted a folk concert series for decades. The store remains open today.