by Alison Bonaguro
(Special to the Tribune),
Published January 28, 2007


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 Waukegan.

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.

Radio's support

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.

Chicago crowds

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 selling out.

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 line."

---------- ctc-arts@tribune.com Copyright 2007, Chicago Tribune

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