When you think of country music hotbeds, Chicago probably doesn’t spring to mind. But at one time, Chicago was the country music capitol of the world, before Nashville shoved it off the throne.
“Country music has long been low-profile or even underground in Chicago,” said Paul Tyler, musical historian and instructor at the Old Town School of Folk Music. “Surprising for a city that once had a large profile in the music business, and was a pioneer in the professionalization of country. Blues, gospel and polka became the musical icons for Chicago. It’s almost like the city wanted to forget its country roots.”
But after decades of neglect, the country music scene has experienced a rebirth, albeit a little louder that before, with fewer cowboy hats and more tattoos.
First, Some History
Chi-town country came about from an influx of Appalachian and Southern families heading north to work in Windy City factories. Luckily, they brought their guitars and fiddles with them. In its beginnings, live country music in Chicago was played mostly in living rooms and small public gatherings, but radio changed that, Tyler said. Namely, WLS-AM’s National Barn Dance radio show broadcast that ran from 1924 to 1959. Semi-professional bands and solo artists began appearing on local radio “as a means to advertise their schoolhouse shows,” Tyler said. “When a group had played out an area, they would move on to a new station in a new town.”
After World War II, a few country-music clubs sprang up along West Madison Avenue, but they would die out as local interest began to wane. The Barn Dance was eventually canceled by WLS, which changed formats entirely to rock n’ roll, but would survive on WGN-AM for almost another decade before finally succumbing to cancellation. Modern country music migrated down to Nashville and the Barn Dance’s competing radio program, the Grand Ole Opry.
But while the flame died down, an ember survived. Bluegrass and old-timey square-dance music kept things rolling from the 1960s through the 1990s at various clubs and the Old Town School of Folk. By all accounts, the biggest reason country survived was local legend the Sundowners, who held a residency at the Bar Double-R Ranch for several decades and had a reported repertoire of more than 25,000 songs. Despite being virtually unknown outside of the 312 area code, the Sundowners became a Willis Tower-size inspiration to the current (alt) country kings of Chicago: Robbie Fulks and Jon Langford.
Bloodshot Records founders Nan Warshaw and Rob Miller met in the early 1990s, spinning classic country records at Delilah’s.
“It really was the underground of the underground at the time,” Warshaw said. “We were looking for music that spoke to us personally—dark, intimate and filled with real-life struggle. Traditional country music had all that.”