Chicago Hard Country

Carol’s Pub, a genuine surviving Chicago honky tonk (photo by Chrissy Slaton, Time Out Chicago)

Bob Boyd of The Sundowners, the house band at the “Bar Double R,” once a subcultural and subterranean downtown Chicago institution, flipped through the pages of a songbook on a music stand and then, with his reading glasses set on the end of his nose, strummed his rhythm guitar and started singing “When I was a child my family would travel down to Western Kentucky where my parents were born….”

It was some drunken weeknight in give-or-take 1988, overstaying yet another happy hour, that I made my way down the long narrow staircase near the Greyhound station on Randolph Street to join the thin crowd at one of my favorite downtown bars and requested John Prine’s tree-hugging anthem “Paradise,” because for whatever reason at that moment I was feeling the continuity of a storied country music tradition in Chicago and I needed to see it up close and as big as life.

None of that scene is there, anymore. Not exactly, anyway. The Chicago music scene is still very much alive, in varied and diverse tributaries. The Hideout in Wicker Park had even acquired some of the graffiti-carved tables from the RR Ranch. But The Sundowners, the RR Ranch and the Greyhound station are all long gone — and as covid-19 continues to take its toll on music scenes around the world, it took John Prine from us on April 7, 2020.

“Paradise” appeared on Prine’s first album, featuring the harmony vocals of Steve Goodman, who would go on to write “the perfect country song” with an uncredited John Prine called “You Never Even Call Me By My Name” that was made into a country hit by David Allan Coe.

While he was a big songwriting and performing fish in the smallish pond of the Old Town folkie scene, Prine’s eponymous 1971 debut album produced by Kris Kristofferson would put him on the country music map. “Paradise” was even covered by Lynn Anderson, peaking at 26 on the US Country Music charts in 1976.

While country music was never really as strong in Chicago’s culture as it would eventually grow in Nashville or Austin, the music still has some pretty strong roots forcing their way through the Windy City’s concrete and into its gritty winds. Launched in 1924, the “National Barn Dance” hit the airwaves on WLS with its 50,000 watts of clear channel broadcasting to become one of the nation’s most popular music shows on the medium.

I often labor under an informal anthropological theory wherein, as punk rockers slow down with age, it can naturally turn into country music. It happened to Elvis Costello. It happened to X as they morphed into The Knitters with Blasters guitarist Dave Alvin. Country music radio stations came and went through the greater Chicagoland listening area, from the mid-dial stations playing the safe and charted hits to one little ten-watt college station, WZRD out of Northeastern Illinois University in the North Park neighborhood, reaching the receiver of my bedroom stereo in my parents’ house in the middle of the 1980s where I shamelessly bootlegged “Hard Country” shows and brought the tapes back to turn my college buddies on to that stuff. DJs Lefty, Pickup and the Coca-Cola Cowboy mixed the old honky tonk country records with the newer artists’ attempts and interpretations. There was something a little weirder and hungrier going on in there that I needed to share.

“I was Lefty,” said Terry Nelson, adding that Paul Taylor was the Coca Cola Cowboy and Craig Schmidt was Pickup. “Those were sure some wild, crazy and fun times. Those shows were like six hour or even longer parties where literally it wasn’t uncommon where one or two of us would pass out. I remember one where I had to step over the other two to get in and out of the control room. It was truly anything goes and a whole hell of a lot of fun.”

“It was really kind of funny the reaction was quiet,” Nelson continued, “like the reaction when I first started playing Punk and early Industrial stuff many people seemed to really hate it but eventually in the end most of them came around and realized in both cases just how great the music was.”

In 2004, Chicago’s very own Bloodshot Records label, built upon a hybrid of Chicago’s maturing 1990s punk rock scene and country music legacy — and building its very own legendary hard country (or alt-country, or cowpunk, or honky skronk) scene — released a CD tribute to the old Barn Dance program by a collection of musicians named the Pine Valley Cosmonauts led by Jon Langford of the UK’s Mekons and Chicago’s Waco Brothers and featuring, among others, a real life “National Barn Dance” veteran and swing jazz violinist Johnny Frigo, who joined the Barn Dance in 1948.

By the later 1980s, having already explored the country musical landscape on albums like Fear and Whiskey, Langford and the Mekons toured the US, including Chicago. There the band was enlightened to Alcala’s Western Wear, where they promptly outfitted themselves in proper Chicago “western” attire.

I was not anywhere near Alcala’s at that historic moment but I remember it being a Monday night at the Bar RR when I was sitting at a corner of the bar, near a TV with a couple of buddies watching the Bears play the Minnesota Vikings on Monday Night Football while The Sundowners played their nightly set on the stage. It was probably Don Walls who announced a break and told the crowd that a group of country legends we were lucky to have in town that night would be taking the stage.

“We wandered in to the Ranch after a show at the Cubby Bear — the guys were determined to get us up on stage,” Langford said of The Sundowners that night, “because we were all decked out in Alcala’s finest shirts, collar tips, belts, and Stetsons like only a British rock band would.”

My memory is fuzzy but there are some vague recollections in there of the crowd’s reactions ranging from amusement to grievance at the spectacle of these cowboy clad punks attempting to entertain that audience of urban cowboys in everything from shirtsleeves to work boots. I remember defending their performance as a kind of breath of fresh air.

“Don Walls stayed up on stage and played with us but we were probably horrible — definitely did ‘Lost Highway’ by Hank and, while it was a little mortifying, I don’t remember a bad reaction in the room,” Langford continued. “People were really friendly and we kept going back there year after year. Made me realize I want to do my homework and I started learning how to play some Johnny Cash songs.”

It wasn’t long after then that Langford put down his own roots in Chicago and started the Waco Brothers with Dean Schlabowske from Milwaukee’s Wreck. But none of us that night had any idea that we were witnessing some genuine cultural history. Except maybe the Mekons and Sundowners themselves; but most likely only the Sundowners. “I think they used to enjoy anybody getting up onstage so they could go have a drink,” Langford said.

As Chicago changed, as cities always must, The Sundowners lost their downtown Ranch and moved to the suburbs in 1990, opening up their own venue in Franklin Park. They were an established local act and played some gigs featuring local news anchor Joel Daly on lead vocals. But eventually, The Sundowners succumbed to time and age.

I still like to believe that Don Walls, Bob Boyd and Curt Delaney knew exactly who and what they had invited onto their stage that night; like a passing of that proverbial torch. Of course, I want to think, at least for showing up in the right place at the right times, that maybe I could go down in that history, too.

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