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posted: 3/13/2014 11:23 AM

Learn about country music's roots in Chicago

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  • Bob Atcher at a personal appearance.

    Bob Atcher at a personal appearance.
    Courtesy of Michael Montana

  • National Barn Dance cast, circa 1936.

    National Barn Dance cast, circa 1936.
    Courtesy of Maggie Atcher

Submitted by McHenry County Historical Society

There was a time in America when Chicago was the epicenter of country music and when Saturday nights were reserved for the likes of Lulu Belle, Gene Autry, Patsy Montana, and the Beaver Valley Sweethearts.

"Nashville and the Nashville country community conveniently swept it under the rug, but believe it or not Chicago was the country music capital back then," said Stephen Parry, producer of a documentary exploring the impact of the National Barn Dance from its inception in 1924 through its zenith in 1960.

Parry will talk about his research, interspersed with clips from the Garrison Keillor-narrated film "The Hayloft Gang: The Story of the National Barn Dance."

Parry, 53, who works for the video production company Image Base, said Sears, Roebuck & Co.'s agricultural foundation launched the program on April 19, 1924, in the former Hotel Sherman at Clark and Randolph streets. It was broadcast on a new AM station -- WLS (World's Largest Store).

Four years later, the company sold the station and its popular program to the Agricultural Broadcasting Co. for $250,000 -- a newly formed holding corporation controlled by America's oldest farming newspaper, Prairie Farmer. At that point, the program really took off.

"They expanded the whole marketing concept by sending road shows all over the Midwest and all over the United States," Parry said.

They also published an annual yearbook called the WLS Family Album and a fan magazine titled "Standby." Starting in 1933, it aired nationally on NBC's Blue Network Saturday nights from the old Eighth Street Theatre. At that time, NBC owned what became the American Broadcasting Co.

Parry said the National Barn Dance served as a touchstone for the public, weary from the Great Depression and war, until its last broadcast in 1960. A more scaled-down version of the program continued on-air on WLS, and later on WGN, but times were changing.

"There was the emergence of rock and roll, television and the musicians' union," Parry said. "Also, there was more attention to song about drinking and cheating than barn dance songs."

Parry, a native of Whitley County, Ind., and a bluegrass music fan, will show clips from his hourlong documentary and talk about the cultural impact of this Midwestern variety show starting at 7 p.m. Monday, March 17, at the Trout Valley barn, 167 Country Commons Road.

It is the first of four Sampler Series lectures offered by the McHenry County Historical Society.

Other programs in the series include:

• 3 p.m. Monday, March 31, -- "Those Magnificent 'Whizbang' Traveling Salesmen of Illinois." Presented by Ronald Solberg at the McHenry County Historical Society Museum, 6422 Main St., Union. Chicago has produced more than its share of enterprising salesmen. For more than 150 years, figures such as Marshall Field and his "whiz-bang drummers" and infomercial king Ron Popeil and his "Pocket Fisherman" have introduced products, services and concepts that are still with us today. Made possible by a grant from the Illinois Humanities Council.

• 7 p.m. Monday, April 7, -- "Roadside History of Illinois," presented by Stan "Tex" Banash of Norwood Park. The book covers the history of the state from the Ice Age to the present, offering vacationers, tourists and visitors a series of short trips, mostly along old U.S. highways, state highways and county roads, that provide a glimpse into numerous historic sites and the history of nearly 250 significant cities, towns and villages in seven geographical regions.

• 7 p.m. Monday, April 21, -- "Behind the Badge." Take a look behind the Dick Tracy comic strip with its technical adviser Amtrak Police Sgt. Jim Doherty. Learn about the famous detective's real-life role models.

All programs, excluding the National Barn Dance in Trout Valley, are at the society museum, 6422 Main St. in Union.

Series tickets are $35, $30 for society members. A $10 donation is requested for individual programs.

The barn dance and traveling salesman programs are made possible through a grant from the Illinois Humanities Council.

For information or to buy tickets, call (815) 923-2267 or visit