Country twang grows louder in Chicago
By Dan Hyman
At first, Eric Church couldn’t explain it. And yet every time the North Carolina-based country artist came to play a show in Chicago in the early days, typically at Joe’s Bar in Lincoln Park, fans would show up in droves.
“For us it was the heart of our fan base,” the singer, who now regularly packs arenas and returns to Allstate Arena in April, says looking back. “Chicago has always been at the epicenter.”
Church is not alone in his surprise: ask the average country music fan and chances are Chicago might not be the first place that comes to mind when thinking of the genre’s prominent cities. The tide however has been steadily turning in recent years — artists and industry executives agree that over the past five years this city has become one of the premier country destinations.
“Once you start going there and playing you really start to see that it’s a little hotbed,” says Matthew Ramsey, singer of chart-topping country band Old Dominion, who play several shows a year in Chicago. “People are hungry for new music and they show up and have a great time.”
“Chicago is a crucial market to the country music scene,” adds Ed Warm. “In the last five years it’s really blown up exponentially.” As the proprietor of Joe’s Bar since opening it with Tom DiSanto in 1997, and one of the most respected names in the country music business, Warm should know. “It’s as big as it gets for both radio and music sales and live music,” he says of the city. Joe’s in particular has played a pivotal role in establishing the city as a crucial player in the country music world. More importantly, the 975-capacity venue has provided a home for on-the-rise talent to play; everyone from Church to Brad Paisley, Miranda Lambert to Keith Urban and Lady Antebellum have gigged at Joe’s.
“That’s the really fun part about the business — the artist development,” Warm says. “You feel very proud when you see artists take their show to an amphitheater or arena.”
Sensing an uptick in interest in country in the city, Warm also helped revive Bub City as a live country music venue. Partnering with owners Lettuce Entertain You, Warm assisted in re-establishing the River North barbecue bar-restaurant as a key stop for up-and-coming country artists, much as he did with Joe’s years before. In the three years since it reopened — the original location was a country hot spot in the late ’80s and ’90s — critically acclaimed artists from Sturgill Simpson to Chris Stapleton and Old Dominion have gigged there. (Joe’s and Bub City also recently partnered for a new, joint location that opened this year in Rosemont).
There is also a tight-knit community of local players but, according to Chicago alt-country singer-songwriter Robbie Fulks, many decamp fairly quickly to Nashville for greater exposure. He says the top players often pair off with local acts that have achieved some notoriety — Kelly Hogan and the Hoyle Brothers, for instance. Joe’s more often than not features national touring acts, whereas local players can be seen at the smaller clubs.
There a few notable venues in the Chicagoland area that have long featured country acts, but none that hang their hat on it in a major way or draw much attention. These spots include Honky-Tonk BBQ, Cadillac Ranch (now Lucky Star, in Bartlett) FitzGerald’s (in Berwyn), the late Carol’s Pub, and High Noon Saloon. Empty Bottle and Schubas also regularly feature country artists.
The Hoyle Brothers have been drawing 100-plus people to the combo’s Friday night residency at the Empty Bottle for 14 years. Still, as the band’s drummer Lance Helgeson says, it doesn’t often feel like the country industry turns toward Chicago when looking to discover talent.
“I don’t necessarily think that people equate Chicago to country music that often,” he says. “Though I do think that people that care about country music and search for it are aware of what’s happening in Chicago and who’s who.” Helgeson bemoans the dwindling number of local clubs and bars that foster the genre — the California Clipper, for example, used to be a country bar but now primarily traffics in jazz — and the accompanying lack of country-identifying musicians in the city. “There’s a decent number of people that play country music here,” he says. “But are there a lot of people that identify as country musicians and are committed to that as a career? I don’t think so. It’s hard to make a living when you’re making 50 (to) 100 dollars a night in a club.”
As the country scene has exploded, perhaps not unexpectedly, large-scale festivals have simultaneously set up shop: Warm and Lettuce recently wrapped the second year of their Windy City Smokeout barbecue and country music fest. Similarly, the second edition of the Windy City LakeShake festival took place in June at the FirstMerit Pavilion at Northerly Island.
According to president of Live Nation Country Music and Chicago native Brian O’ Connell, who spearheaded LakeShake, country has always prospered in Chicago — major artists like Shania Twain and Garth Brooks have been doing massive arena shows here for years. But, he says, with festivals coming into the downtown area, not to mention stadium shows at venues like Wrigley and Soldier fields now becoming a regular stop on a major artists’ tour, Chicago has steadily become more inundated with country flavor.
“It’s more in-your-face now if you’re a Chicagoan,” O’Connell, who booked Luke Bryan’s August show at Wrigley, adds. “It’s not that the demand hasn’t been there but the business has evolved.” Since 2009, big-ticket artists including Rascal Flatts, Paisley, Blake Shelton, Jason Aldean and Zac Brown Band have played Wrigley. “The major acts are knitting together 10 to 12 stadiums as part of their tour,” O’Connell says. “And who doesn’t want to play Wrigley Field?”
According to Jeff Kapugi, program director for US-99 (WUSN), their station “regularly ranks in the top two or three in total weekly audience in the country. So in terms of size we are right up there with N.Y., LA, Dallas and Houston.” He also notes that “Chicago and US99 have always been important partners to the artists and labels in Nashville. With the size of our audience we have ability to dramatically influence sales.” As of January 2015 there is a second major country radio station in the city: Big 95.5, which gives US-99 its first direct competitor since WKXK folded in 1996.
R.J. Melman, managing partner of Bub City who helped organize Windy City Smokeout with Warm, says country’s increased popularity in the city and nation at large played a pivotal factor in establishing the concert series: “I think country music has replaced rock ‘n’ roll in America,” he offers. “That fan has moved over there as well. We know that there’s a lot of fans of country music so we continue to do a festival.”
But not everyone is convinced that country has become a major player in Chicago. Fulks, a longtime presence on the country circuit who is signed to Bloodshot Records, says he feels the local scene is still sorely lacking in talent.
“There’s just not a very deep pool of country players here,” he says. “That’s just a problem with the industry not being here and the money not being here for players. It’s just too off of everybody’s radar.”
Nevertheless, for many country artists Chicago has been and remains crucial. Despite the fact he’s arguably one of the biggest names in country, Church says he’ll always have a soft spot for the city — and Joe’s Bar in particular. “It’s one of a handful of special places I’ll always go back and play whether it be a band show, acoustic show or something just to go remember where we came from. It’s a part of my DNA.”
Dan Hyman is a freelancer.