New book shows Chicago, suburban history filled with more than a little bit country
Bob Atcher was a Kentucky-born, fiddle-playing cowboy who released a string of records in the 1940s that landed on the “Hillbilly” charts.
He was also the mayor of Schaumburg for 15 years.
While Chicago is known mostly for its history with blues and jazz music, local writer Mark Guarino has tapped into the region's fascinating country roots in his new book, “Country & Midwestern: Chicago in the History of Country Music and the Folk Revival.”
After a decade of research and hundreds of interviews - and after spending several years as a music critic, experiencing firsthand the Americana music scene in the 1990s - Guarino took great care to detail the importance of the city and suburbs in the history of country music.
From the WLS National Barn Dance starting in the 1920s, where Atcher was a regular performer, to the creation of the Old Town School of Folk Music in the 1950s and the formation of Bloodshot Records in the 1990s, Guarino covers it all.
“(Atcher) stayed around Chicago, and he was more or less the founder of Schaumburg,” Guarino said. “But then he'd still go around and play clubs in the '60s. He's a great example of what the scene was like here.”
The country pioneers from the Carter Family recorded in Chicago, as did bluegrass legends Flatt and Scruggs. In “Country & Midwestern,” Guarino notes how Bill Monroe recorded “Blue Moon of Kentucky” in the Wrigley Building.
“Country & Midwestern” draws a winding path through Chicago's neighborhoods. It's a journey through the decades, leading up to the emergence of local artists such as Wilco and Robbie Fulks, who wrote the forward for the book.
The influence of country music eventually extended into the suburbs as the population shifted away from the city. Nashville North in Bensenville hosted Grand Ole Opry stars Ernest Tubb and Faron Young, as well as a young artist named Garth Brooks, whose 1989 appearance came just before he released the breakthrough album “No Fences.”
There was Cadillac Ranch in Bartlett and White Horse Country in Hoffman Estates. Because of the U.S. Army base at Fort Sheridan, the North Shore community of Highwood became a hotbed for live country music.
Writing “Country & Midwestern” was a departure from journalism for Guarino, 53, who's covered national news and pop culture for ABC News, The Washington Post, The New York Times and other outlets. He was the Midwest bureau chief for the Christian Science Monitor for six years and the Daily Herald's music critic for 11 years.
Guarino is in the middle of a book tour that takes him to Lake Villa's Harbor Brewing Company, 136 Cedar Ave., at 7 p.m. Friday, July 7. In an event hosted by Little Beans Books, Guarino will speak about “Country & Midwestern” and sign copies before a performance by The Breaks.
“Looking back at the '90s, it was such an amazing moment of change for the music scene,” Guarino said. “I was living that history. It wasn't until later that I realized there was something important here to write about.”
While researching the book, Guarino rushed to secure interviews with aging figures important to the story. The list included Cal Starr, the longtime promoter and country performer who, in the 1960s, was paid thousands of dollars for bringing Loretta Lynn, Marty Robbins and others to Waukegan's Genesee Theatre and elsewhere in the city and suburbs.
Guarino also interviewed singer-songwriter John Prine, a Maywood native who agreed to write the forward for the book but passed away the following spring in 2020.
“I did interviews in nursing homes, at people's kitchen tables, met people at Panera,” Guarino said. “I was essentially a stranger to them and they told me the greatest stories.”
By the time WLS canceled the National Barn Dance and shifted to top 40 music in the 1950s, Nashville had surpassed Chicago as the country music capital of the world. But for more than a moment, Chicago represented the heartbeat of country music.
With “Country & Midwestern,” Guarino makes sure we don't forget the beat goes on.
“There so much great history, at one point I thought this could be a series of books,” Guarino said. “It's a 500-page book and there's so much more that could have been in there.”
Mark Guarino author appearance
What: Guarino discusses “Country & Midwestern” before a performance by The Breaks
When: 7 p.m. Friday, July 7
Where: Harbor Brewing Company, 136 Cedar Ave., Lake Villa
Hosted by: Little Beans Books