Country and Midwestern hit the surrounding suburbs in recent weeks. First was in neighboring Oak Park, a town mentioned many times in its pages due to its importance in, among other things, launching the Old Town School of Folk Music.

Songwriter Mark Dvorak led the conversation at the Oak Park River Forest Museum to a full house. Besides leading a riveting and fun talk, Mark got everyone singing! A former teacher at the Old Town School, Mark personifies the spirit of that organization: That anyone, anywhere possesses the ability to communicate with others through song. It’s a beautiful thing.

Lake Villa near the Wisconsin border was next. At the Harbor Brewing Company, I talked with Brett Neveu, my old friend, about Country and Midwestern, while Little Bean Books in Antioch sold books all evening Friday. Before we started, Brett and guitarist-songwriter Rich Sparks performed a set of music as The Breaks. Check them out!

On the Radio and In Print

Thank you, Steve Darnell for inviting me on your legendary weekend radio show Those Were the Days the other week on WDCB 90.9 FM. I grew up a loyal Saturday listener; founder Chuck Schaden was pivotal for exposing me to the golden age of radio and early Hollywood, so it was a thrill to join Steve who has done an excellent job in continuing it into the new century.

Thank you, Kevin Schmit of the Daily Herald (my former employer!) for writing a generous feature on Country and Midwestern the other week. Check it out here.

New Dates! New Dates!

I’m appearing at the Craftsman Café at the American Legion Hall in downtown Libertyville, Illinois on October 13. Music will follow the conversation. Tickets are free, but you need to reserve tickets online. More information is forthcoming, but in the meantime, visit the event page here.

I’ll also be in conversation with journalist Rick Kogan at the Printers Row Lit Fest in September. It’s the 38th year of this national literary festival held in downtown Chicago. Time and date are TBD. Jon Langford, who is featured prominently in the book and who also painted the cover art, will join the conversation and then perform afterward. Watch this space!

John Prine on “Lake Marie”

The Lake Villa event for Country and Midwestern had me thinking about John Prine. Down the road, of course, is Lake Marie — a 480-acre lake near the Wisconsin border that is part of the so-called “Chain O’Lakes,” an exotic term for a kid. I heard about that lovely Irish-sounding chain of water all my life. Essentially, these small northern lakes were once short vacation destinations for Chicagoans but today are prime recreation assets for the communities that have developed around them.

“Lake Marie” is also a song by John Prine that appears on his 1995 record, Lost Dogs and Mixed Blessings — One of his best and oddly, least known records in his long catalog. Not long after that record was released, I interviewed John for the first time. One of the things I wanted to know was the origin of “Lake Marie” — a song that used the lake as a specific reference but also as a metaphor for all the horrors that creep beneath the dark waters of everyday life. To anyone who grew up in this area, the telltale signs are there — local forest preserves, WGN news reports of grisly murders in the suburbs, and, of course, the sizzling of Italian sausages in the summer.

For the next two decades, “Lake Marie” would become one of his most beloved songs and serve as the peak of his live shows.

Here’s John Prine in 1999 telling me about what led him to write “Lake Marie”:

“It was just an idea I had. I was carrying it around with me. I had this idea for a song that was going to have half talking, half singing in it. It was going to have a strong chorus to it, and it was going to start out with something that had a historical nature to it. I had nothing else. I just had an idea for a song like that. I just waited for something to come along that I thought I could fit into that.

“I was sound checking for a song at the Woodstock Opera House (in Illinois). The monitor guy mentioned something to another guy about Lake Marie. And I said ‘Lake Marie, is that around here?’ And he said ‘yeah, about 20 minutes down the road.’ I said, ‘I haven’t been there in years.’ And he gave me directions and me and my brother Billy, we drove over there, it was like in February. There was nothing open hardly at all. Because the town of Twin Lakes was mostly open for the summertime. I saw a little library, a one room one. I was looking at the bulletin board and I asked the librarian ‘Has anybody ever written anything about the history of this area?’ And she said, ‘No, but there’s a guy working on it; he’s been working several years on it.’ And she said she had a business card for him.

“So I called him and — I felt like a detective at this point — he sends me various articles. And one of them was talking about the two sisters that the lakes were named after, Elizabeth and Mary. And the little story about the Indians that were around the area when they found the girl.

“And I said, ‘That’s that, that’s the song right there.’ And the rest of it, the second verse about meeting a girl and the Italian sausages cooking, that was kind of autobiographical. Me and my high school sweetheart, we used to go to Crystal Lake and Lake Marie, the chain of lakes, you know? So did everybody else. We used to go there on weekends and have picnics. Just different lakes. Everybody brought their best looking car. You go there, cook up Italian sausage and have a game of baseball.

“And the third verse was all the mayhem and people getting killed. As far as I can figure where that came from is maybe all the unsolved murders that were going on in the suburbs in the late ’50s, early ’60s. Like, ‘Who would do such a thing like that?’ The weird murders, and they were unsolved, and they were all in the suburbs. We grew up thinking the bad place was being downtown and here, all the sudden, like there’s real screwballs out in the suburbs. Like it was Blue Velvet, you know? That’s where third verse came from. I just put it all together and for me, it worked, and I just went ahead and cut it.”

“Lake Marie” by John Prine

We were standing
Standing by peaceful waters
Standing by peaceful waters
Whoa wah oh wha oh

Many years ago along the Illinois Wisconsin border
There was this Indian tribe
They found two babies in the woods
White babies
One of them was named Elizabeth
She was the fairer of the two
While the smaller and more fragile one was named Marie
Having never seen white girls before
And living on the two lakes known as the Twin Lakes
They named the larger and more beautiful lake Lake Elizabeth
And thus the smaller lake that was hidden from the highway
Became known forever as Lake Marie

We were standing
Standing by peaceful waters
Standing by peaceful waters
Whoa wah oh wha oh

Many years later I found myself talking to this girl
Who was standing there with her back turned to Lake Marie
The wind was blowing especially through her hair
There was four Italian sausages cooking
On the outdoor grill
And they were sizzlin’
Many years later we found ourselves in Canada
Trying to save our marriage
And perhaps catch a few fish
Whatever came first
That night she fell asleep in my arms
Humming the tune to “Louie Louie”
Aah baby, we gotta go now

We were standing
Standing by peaceful waters
Standing by peaceful waters
Whoa wah oh wha oh

The dogs were barking as the cars were parking
The loan sharks were sharking
The narcs were narcing
Practically everyone was there
In the parking lot by the forest preserve
The police had found two bodies
Nay, naked bodies!
Their faces had been horribly disfigured
By some sharp object
Saw it on the news
The TV news
In a black and white video
Do you know what blood looks like in a black and white video?
Shadows, shadows!
That’s what it looks like
All the love we shared between her and me was slammed
Slammed up against the banks of old Lake Marie

We were standing
Standing by peaceful waters
Standing by peaceful waters
Whoa wah oh wha oh
Peaceful waters
Standing by peaceful waters
Aah baby, we gotta go now