The musical compass is finally pointing north.
Good news for Chicago, but Texas may not like the
sound of it. Because gigging in Texas used to be its
own reward. It wasn't a means to a record deal,
merely a lifestyle chosen by country artists too
cool for radio. Executives from Nashville didn't
come looking for these guys, nor did the artists
show up in Nashville looking for a deal.
For years, their willingness to openly mock the
industry that eluded them was overcome by a solid
regional fan base that made it possible for Texas
musicians to make a living.
Yet those same artists are starting to get more
spins on country radio in Chicago and are selling
out clubs all over the city and suburbs, such as
Joe's Bar, House of Blues and the Sundance Saloon in
The catalyst could be the audience. Their minds and
wallets have opened, and they seem to be embracing
the Texas sound with cautiously open arms. Marci
Braun, music director at Chicago's US99 (WUSN-FM
99.5), knows why. "Country music is just cyclical.
We went through the pop phase with Shania and her
sound," she said. "Now it's Texas' turn."
FitzGerald's, Schuba's and the Old Town School of
Folk Music have long hosted an older generation of
Texas singer-songwriters. Now, a new crop of artists
such as Jack Ingram, Pat Green, Miranda Lambert,
Cross Canadian Ragweed, Randy Rogers Band and others
are glad to have Chicago on their side. These are
the same guys you might find on "Austin City
Limits," or Billy Bob's in Ft. Worth, or at the San
Antonio Stock Show. Texas is a place where musicians
throw themselves into performing the way others
might throw themselves into hunting down a record
deal. Ingram, whose 2005 single "Wherever You Are"
went to No. 1 on the country charts, doesn't take
that radio airplay for granted. "Ten years ago Keith
Urban couldn't get played on radio, and it was same
stuff he's doing now," Ingram told the Tribune.
When country radio does get behind you, good things
happen. Braun said that the US99 morning show is
taking Pat Green to Dublin, Ireland, for a week in
March to broadcast from there.
The reason Chicago may feel like home to this
handful of mainstreamers: Our city has more
country-music lovers than naysayers. "The good thing
about Texas is we don't get that `I hate country'
down here," Ingram said. "Everybody knows country's
cool down here, and it's the same in Chicago."
While Illinois may be off the beaten path for a
Texas artist on a Nashville record label, both
Austin and Chicago are big on live music. And
Michael Corcoran, author of "All Over the Map: True
Heroes of Texas Music," adds that "Texas
singer-songwriters click with Chicago audiences
because their writing is based on the model of John
Prine, Chi-town's favorite son."
Putting Chicago into their touring circuit may seem
geographically flawed, but artists go where they
know they can fill a venue. Plus, business is
business. And if an artist is selling out the big
clubs in Texas, they must be doing something right.
"The music is spreading outside of Texas because the
corporates are taking notice of the
revenue-producing ability," said Tracie Ferguson,
booking agent for Gruene Hall in Texas, adding that
there is some concession on the artist's part to
write songs "a little more mainstream," but still
keep the "Texas" in it. "It's a compromise that an
artist has to make to some extent if they want to
get any national airplay at all," Ferguson said.
The businessman deep inside Pat Green sees Chicago's
potential too. But he likes coming up here because
of the crowds. "The fans in Chicago are just as
rowdy as the ones in Texas," he said. "They're fans
of music that skirts the edge of pop culture and
feels edgier somehow."
Edgier, yes. But not as much as it used to be. The
Texas sound is no longer just the
Waylon-Jennings-bucks-the-status-quo routine. The
vocals are still a little scratchier than those of a
slick hat act, and the roots of the music still come
from deep inside the acoustic guitar. The way Ingram
describes it, it's Willie Nelson meets Tom Petty.
"We're doing the same stuff we always have been, but
what we were doing was so far left of center, and
now the format took a sharp turn to the left and
headed in my direction. It was just a matter of
being patient," Ingram said.
Corcoran describes the sound as that of artists who
traffic in a poetic lifestyle of freedom, road trips
and Lone Star Beer. And US99's Braun agrees that
honest lyrics from seasoned songwriters are what
matter most. "Now, it's more about the song than it
is the artist," she said. Callers request angry
break-up tunes such as Ingram's "Love You" and
Lambert's "Kerosene" often without even knowing who
the singers are.
But that old-school lyrical bravado seldom makes it
in Chicago. Charlie Robison is a Texas fixture and
has gone a few rounds on the Sony labels. He
released three albums on Columbia and Lucky Dog, but
is now with lesser-known Dualtone Records.
While he'd probably prefer more airplay, he hasn't
had a radio hit since 2004's "El Cerrito Place."
If anyone is still living that defiant life, it's
Robison. He uses the stage to openly criticize
A-list artists such as Brad Paisley and Tim McGraw.
He doesn't rely on Nashville validation to put food
on the table (his wife is Dixie Chicks
banjo-slinging Emily Robison), so he can blame his
attitude on artistic convictions.
Eventually, when the major-label record deal rears
its ugly but lucrative head, there's the question of
Randy Rogers Band had bounced around Texas doing
every fair, fest, rodeo and club they could. "We'd
made four indie records. We didn't shop anything in
Nashville," said frontman Rogers, "but there was a
buzz about us there."
They ended up on Mercury Nashville with the promise
of creative freedom. Their lead single, "Kiss Me in
the Dark," though, wasn't one they penned.
Regardless of where the hits come from, their
conviction about where it's headed remains genuine.
"I can't speak for everybody on the bus," Rogers
said, "but we just want to take what was started
long before us and take it on further down the
Copyright © 2007, Chicago Tribune