Hello and Happy New Year!
If you are reading this, it means you are someone I interviewed over the phone, in a coffeeshop, at your kitchen table, in your living room, or backstage at a club. Or you are someone who helped point me a direction, lent me some research, told me a story, or simply gave me encouragement — All in the years-long effort to complete:
COUNTRY AND MIDWESTERN: CHICAGO IN THE HISTORY OF COUNTRY MUSIC AND THE FOLK REVIVAL.
I am very pleased to announce that the book is scheduled to hit the physical and virtual bookshelves in April 2023! You can read more about the book on the University of Chicago Press website.
(If you pre-order the book on the Press site, use code PRCOUNTRY30 at checkout to receive 30 percent off.)
If Amazon is easiest, you can find it there to pre-order. You can also join me on Goodreads and mark it on your to-do reading list.
The book is the first to document a nearly 100-year history of country and folk music in Chicago. I’m extremely proud of contributing to a new and (oddly) little-known chapter of the city’s deep cultural history. This project began as a whim — “why isn’t there a book about all of this great music?” I naively asked myself nearly 20 years ago — and about 10 years ago that whim turned into a gateway that led me people, clubs, record labels, and individuals who now live in these pages.
I am thrilled to bring them together in a single volume that will represent a historical record of this music, hopefully affirm Chicago’s important role in the development of country and folk music, and maybe even inspire people beyond me to research and write about variants this book introduces that are worthy of future and deeper exploration.
I am also pleased that Grammy-nominated songwriter Robbie Fulks wrote the foreword. The great songwriter, musician, and painter Jon Langford produced the cover art. See below!
What does the book cover? Well, quite a lot. In brief, the 524 pages span nearly 100 years of history, which includes:
- The most in-depth history to date of the WLS Barn Dance, the first commercial presentation of country music.
- The Gate of Horn, the first national nightclub dedicated to folk music opened by future Dylan impresario Albert Grossman.
- The first-ever history of the University of Chicago Folk Festival — It was second only to Newport in launching the discovery of early country, bluegrass, and country blues performers like Elizabeth Cotten, Maybelle Carter, Mississippi John Hurt, the Stanley Brothers, Frank Proffitt, and countless others.
- A dip into the rich bohemian scene in Hyde Park, which included Bob Dylan’s forgotten month there in 1961.
- The most thorough history of the Old Town School of Folk Music to date, the origins of its three co-founders, and the school’s lasting impact on the national folk revival and beyond. (A revelation unknown until now: Each founder was considered so radical, they were under surveillance — and harassed — by the FBI for years.)
- The development of hardcore country scenes in Uptown and Skid Row, two landing spots for Southern musicians and poets.
- The singer-songwriter scene in the 1970’s in Old Town and Lincoln Park, and the history of the influential Prine family of neighboring Maywood.
- How bluegrass developed in Chicago, creating the first groups to widen the music’s popularity outside the South.
- The second folk music revival in the 1980s, and the migration of country music to Chicago’s suburbs where Garth Brooks had a moment before exploding nationwide.
- The early development of “alternative country” in rock clubs and art galleries in the late 1980s and 1990s and how it is directly responsible for the looming popularity of what everyone today calls “Americana.”
- And, as they say on late night TV, much more.
In future editions of this newsletter, I’ll go into greater detail about each time period, share stories and photos, and expand on what couldn’t make the final cut. The theme running throughout the book is how Chicago became — and remains — a place for experimentation for musicians, record labels, club owners, and others to expand and develop the music, all while under threat from the city of Chicago itself.
While Nashville emerged in the 1950s as the headquarters for the country music industry, a lot of the earliest innovation — and latter-day experimentation — came from Chicago, and continued thereafter. Bill Monroe, the Carter Family, Flatts and Scruggs, and others recorded on Michigan Avenue. Buck Owens shaped an urban sound on Madison Street. Jethro Burns schooled a new generation of bluegrass musicians from his Evanston home. When folk music died elsewhere by the early 1970’s, John Prine and others fostered a second wave in Old Town and Lincoln Park.
From John Lair creating a commercialized vision of rural string-band music on the WLS Barn Dance to groups like Souled American, the Handsome Family, and Califone, which infused electronics, modern-day sensibilities with the most traditional folk music elements, Chicago was always a place that served as an incubator for pushing the music forward while staying true to its universal expressions of yearning, lonesomeness, and the harsh realities of romantic love.
I ask for your forgiveness early as I hope to send future missives like this one to your email box. The idea is to share nuggets related to the book – stories, photos, maybe video — and to keep you posted of coming live appearances in Chicago and beyond this spring and summer (and fall?). There are some big events coming up, some involving live music, and I hope I can coax you to come out.
Of course, if you’re reading this and thinking, “What’s with this guy?” or “Is this spam from a Russian troll farm?” — Please know I will not be offended if you drop off the list or tell me to kindly remove you.
For everyone else, I hope you see these messages simply as a way for me to celebrate the book’s existence with those of you who helped along the way, and others who are excited about the music.
Until next time, I leave you with some early reviews.
PS: What’s that photo at the very top? Why, it’s a rodeo in Soldier Field hosted by Tex Austin in 1926. Yes, real cowboys, not the Dallas kind, once bucked broncos where the Chicago Bears play today.