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I'm country and I know it

Chicago country music fans are stuck between rock and a suburban place

  • The Chris Weaver Band perform at Joe's on Weed Street.
The Chris Weaver Band perform at Joe's on Weed Street. (Lenny Gilmore/RedEye )
January 19, 2012|By Emily Van Zandt, RedEye

Beyond the Apple-induced glow of the North/Clybourn Red Line station sits an oasis.

Large and utterly forgettable from the outside, Joe's Bar on Weed Street could be any other crowded sports bar on a Friday night. If you could just ignore the cowboy hats.

With patrons in plaid shirts, cowboy boots and hats (required dress for cover-free admission on "Country Fridays"), Joe's may seem out of place in the city—but it's packed. Sold out, even. People drive miles, or walk blocks, for the one thing it offers that few other venues in the city will touch: country music.

Despite widespread popularity nationally and in Chicago, the genre doesn't get much love in the city, where people mock its rural ways and many venues sidestep it in favor of live pop, rock and hip-hop acts. Joe's, which has twice been named the Academy of Country Music's nightclub of the year, is one of only a few places where fans can catch a big-name act outside of a stadium show or organized bus trip to the 'burbs. Fans are especially out of luck this month when the likes of Rascal Flatts and Sara Evans, Glen Campbell and Lady Antebellum all will blow past Chicago for points downstate.

Nina Lewis, 27, of Lincoln Park, practically had to beg her friend Stacey Roline, 27, to join her at Joe's on a recent Friday to catch a country act.

"I just don't listen [to country]," said Roline, of Lincoln Park. "The songs all just sound like sad love songs—it's hard to relate to."

There's a lot about modern country that doesn't exactly scream "Chicago." Hit scan on the radio and you'll likely turn up Luke Bryan singing about girls dancing in pickup trucks, "American Idol" winner Carrie Underwood warning of cowboy Casanovas and Jason Aldean musing on mud tires—nothing you're likely to run into in the Loop. But country fans maintain there's more to the music than meets the ear.

"A lot of songs may have rural undertones, but several focus on love, heartbreak, family—themes that almost everyone can relate to," said Chicago writer Sara Rose, who works for "No one will ever be able to relate to every song in any genre…there is often a deeper message in the song and the hope is the listener will be able to relate to that message."

Case in point: Lewis, who doesn't mind that her friends tease her for her musical tastes. "It's the big summer anthems that are my favorite" she said. "Maybe I don't relate to a lot of the songs, but the ones about being 17 again, partying on Labor Day weekend, going to the lake—I love those."

Still, Chicago venues used to bringing in big crowds for rock shows or dance nights are hesitant.

"I think country artists tend to play in the suburbs because most venues in the city are afraid to book country artists," said Joei Bush, a booking intern at Reggies Rock Club on the South Side, which mainly books rock and hip-hop, along with the occasional bluegrass act. "They're afraid it will be a waste of time and money."

While Reggies likely won't be bringing in a pop country act anytime soon, music booker Brendan Joyce admits it's because he just isn't familiar with the genre. Instead, Reggies focuses on more accessible subgenres—southern rock or bluegrass—when a club is looking for something with a little more twang.

Despite the cold shoulder it receives in the Windy City, country remains the most widely broadcast music format on the radio, with 2,012 dedicated stations across the U.S. (compared to about 568 Top 40 stations), according to trade publication Inside Radio. In recent years, many country acts have crossed into the mainstream, with artists such as Taylor Swift and Lady Antebellum routinely charting in the Billboard Hot 100.

A small but growing number of bars and restaurants in Chicago are trying to appeal to born-and-bred country fans and the recently converted. Bars such as The Pony in Lakeview and Houndstooth in Wrigleyville host country crowds with themed music nights.

More than 100 fans regularly pile into buses that take them from The Pony to country concerts outside of town.

"We'll take people to Tinley Park, First Midwest Amphitheatre and Soldier Field…we've sold out every single one," says owner Mark Domitrovich, who notes organizers had to book three buses for a Keith Urban in Rosemont, Ill. show last year.

Even  downtown Chicago restaurants aren't immune. Jerrod and RJ Melman (the names behind Lettuce Entertain You hot spots such as Paris Club and Hub 51) count themselves as Chicago country fans and plan to open a country-western bar, complete with southern-inspired dishes and barbecue, in River North later this year.

"[Former Bears player] Greg Olsen started getting us into [country music]," RJ Melman said. "I listen to a lot on satellite radio and love Darius Rucker."

Despite a lack of music venues in the city, Chicago country fans remain loyal. For Billy Smothers, 29, no drive is too long to hear his favorite artists.

"This stuff is just in my blood," saidSmothers, 29, who drives up from suburban Justice to don his Kenny Chesney-esque straw cowboy hat at Joe's. "My dad's from the South and I've grown up with country music. It's in my blood and I love it." | @redeyedrinks

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