By Eric Zorn on May 11, 2023

During a recent guest-hosting stint on WCPT-AM 820, I interviewed Mark Guarino, a Chicago-based producer for ABC’s “Good Morning America” and other shows. He also writes for The Washington Post, The New York Times, The Guardian, Crain’s, the Tribune and other publications. But the focus of the interview was Guarino’s new book, “Country and Midwestern — Chicago in the History of Country Music and the Folk Revival,” published last month by the University of Chicago Press. Mark and I are friends, and I’d been looking forward to this book ever since I learned years ago that he was working on it. I started by asking him how he decided that such a book needed to be written.

Mark Guarino: It really started when I was the pop music critic at the Daily Herald from 1997 to 2008 and also writing for many music magazines such as Blender, Harp, No Depression and Paste, all of which are now defunct. So I covered the scene in Chicago pretty intently, day to day. And it really excited me. Musicians here were doing things that I thought were very new, combining punk rock with country for example, and a lot of great songwriters were emerging from that.

And at the same time I knew there were important things in the history that are now gone, like The Sundowners, a trio of players that held the ground in the South Loop for almost three decades. Uptown used to be filled with a lot of country music bars. I started learning all this stuff and I couldn’t believe it was so underdocumented, all of this music for many, many years, no one really had written about it in a comprehensive way. And that’s when I realized that there was probably a book there.

Eric Zorn: When you proposed the book, did you see it being more than 400 pages long? Because it’s an enormous topic on one hand, but also a sort of fairly narrow topic.

MG: A couple of years into it, I realized that every chapter could be its own book. And I did go back to the publisher and suggested that. And the answer was “Why don’t you finish this book first?” And so I went ahead and did that.

The book’s a lot longer than I had first proposed for sure. And there’s a lot of stuff in there — probably 70% of it — that I didn’t even anticipate. So it became this big project that just kind of fed on itself. One thing would lead to another. I couldn’t believe that there was so much there that wasn’t reported on in the beginning. And that feeling was even more pronounced once I got into it.

EZ: Is it accurate to say that country music came to Chicago before folk music?

MG: It depends on what you would call folk. These terms are all kind of interchangeable at certain periods of time. There were folk festivals in Chicago in the 1920s. But really, that word was used to describe anything that wasn’t “urban” or jazz. So anything that wasn’t out of the Black community, or wasn’t fast and meant for dancing was considered folk. But if you’re talking about the folk revival of the late 1950s and early 1960s, then for sure country music was here decades before that.

But at the time, it wasn’t called country music. It was called hillbilly music. And Chicago was the place where it was first marketed to a mass audience through the power of early radio and publishing.

Though Nashville has now for decades been associated with country music, back then Nashville was a very, very small town. It would be decades before the song publishing companies and studios would open there and create an industry.

People from Appalachia were moving to Chicago for work, and they brought all the music with them. The “National Barn Dance” started on WLS radio in April 1924 and featured a lot of these musicians. And their music was marketed with needle point precision. There were magazines and tours, and the performers adopted the role of characters.

EZ: But it was the prospect of normal jobs that brought them to Chicago?

MG: That’s exactly it. Jobs were abundant here. And not just in the steel mills, but in many factories.

The book begins in April of 1924, the first month that WLS was on the air. At the end of the month, it was just as an experiment, they brought in some fiddlers to play on a Saturday night. And it was so popular that they formed a show around it. Radio was only about two years old, and WLS was one month old. All these stations were experimenting with what to put on the air. Content up to then were live broadcasts of orchestras, or people reading Shakespearean plays or bedtime stories to children. But the music really took off and that Saturday night show, “National Barn Dance,” was a big, big hit in ways they couldn’t have imagined.

EZ: WLS stood for World’s Largest Store – Sears?

MG: Yes, but they sold the station to Prairie Farmer Magazine just four years later, in 1928, and that publication used it as a vehicle to promote agribusiness throughout the Midwest.

EZ: So did “National Barn Dance” draw musicians to Chicago ?

MG: Actually, a lot of the early performers were people who had come to Chicago with no dreams of getting into show business. They were musical hobbyists who’d come here for school or for jobs.

One of the great stories is about Charlie and Bill Monroe who were here working in the oil refineries in Whiting, Indiana. On Saturday nights, they would dance in a club in Hammond, and an announcer saw them dance and hired them to dance on the air. So they would put down some sort of material where you could hear them square dance. Think theater of the mind.

But as the “National Barn Dance” gained in popularity, performers began coming to Chicago. The show would would find entertainers and then create personas for them — give them different names and give them backstories and give them a look to market in a monthly magazine, then put them on the road. It was an incredibly orchestrated thing. They were all characters on a radio show that the audience got to know over the years.

EZ: Who were these characters?

MG: Patsy Montana. The Coon Creek Girls. The Prairie Ramblers. Lulu Belle and Scotty. These were all people of little means whose lives were completely changed by the show. And it’s really an incredible story, not just that it was a new form of entertainment but also that it was so well done and so well marketed. The National Barn Dance became incredibly popular. Hollywood made movies about the Barn Dance stars, who started touring the country to big crowds.

EZ: So it started in Chicago. Then how did the “Grand Ole Opry” in Nashville eclipse the “National Barn Dance?”

MG: Well, for 20 years or so, the “Grand Ole Opry” did not have the listenership of the National Barn Dance. Then, after World War II, country music began modernizing. It entered the honky-tonk era with performers like Kitty Wells, Webb Pierce and Hank Williams. The music became faster, and got more electric and there were songs about drinking and the devil. The “Grand Ole Opry,” which had copied many of the elements of the “National Barn Dance,” really embraced those stars and that modern sound, whereas the Barn Dance was still under the control of Prairie Farmer magazine, whose owner was very conservative and did not want the performers to sing any of those songs and certainly didn’t see the advantage of the music evolving.

And so the Barn Dance died on the vine. It just wasn’t where the music was going. The music was going in a different direction. The biggest stars were no longer on WLS.

EZ: Prairie Farmer wanted to stay away from the drinkin’ and cheatin’ songs?

MG: They preferred the more sentimental presentation of country. And so you would start to hear some light pop music on the “National Barn Dance,” things that sounded like the Andrews Sisters, for example. The musicianship remained great but the audience drifted away. Yet the show did create a template for how to promote music stars, in all fields.

Rock and roll finally killed it. WLS changed to a top-40 format in 1960 and there was no place for what was left of the “National Barn Dance.” It moved for eight years over to WGN-AM in Chicago and was briefly on TV, but the show’s day had passed.

EZ: So if Prairie Farmer had been a little more forward thinking — a little less stodgy — and had embraced what was going on as country music began to evolve Chicago could have been the hub that Nashville became?

MG: That’s absolutely true. Prairie Farmer had a very parochial view of the music. And it had a certain formula down pat. But once the culture started changing, the owner was scared to move past that formula.

Chicago already was a recording center. There were studios here that recorded such acts as the Carter Family, Bill Monroe and Flatt and Scruggs. So there already was a sense of there was a recording scene here, and it was similar in some ways to the startup culture we see today. The startup culture is willing to take risks and because they’re very small and they’re more nimble, and the National Barn Dance was not very nimble.

But during that time there were honky tonks popping up throughout the north side of the city. And also on Madison Street. If you think of where the United Center is, and the neighborhoods leading to it, those featured blocks of storefront honky tonks, which are essentially bars, it was called Skid Row at the time. It was people with very little means going and drinking and it was a vice district. And as in any vice district, there were live bands and music. Bands would have residencies and play for six weeks at a time, or there’d be house bands. It was all country music.

And as you might imagine the city didn’t really like that area of the town very much. So by the time urban renewal started happening, the fate for those areas was sealed. And that’s why we don’t see them anymore, because they’ve been bulldozed. And in between that time the gentrification urban renewal period, of the late 1960s and early 1970s, the music entered a different realm, in that, a new audience was starting to discover it.

It was sort of a push back against rock and roll, a style which, while it was very exciting for parts of society, was very threatening for other parts. And in some quarters there was a real yearning for music that was considered more pure or more American. And that came from these rural artists from the 1920s and 1930s. People discovered those recordings because they were reissued on the Smithsonian label.

So you had institutions like the Old Town School of Folk Music and the University Chicago Folk Festival bringing these performers up to Chicago where they found a whole new audience. And it wasn’t just country music, or rural music, it was also blues. And the music was entering the nightclubs as well, someplace where it had never really been.

And the biggest nightclub in the nation — the first and the biggest — was the Gate of Horn. There’s a chapter in my book dedicated exclusively to this club. A lot of people today don’t know that it ever existed, but the Gate of Horn was the first national nightclub for folk music.

At the end of the work day, young professionals and suburbanites would go to the Rush Street district and hear jazz and comedians, like Bill Cosby or Shelly Berman. But they would also go to the Gate of Horn, which had folk performers singing the songs from the 20s and 30s, and maybe doing their own spin on them, because music was starting to get popularized, the more kind of polished form. And so the history of that nightclub was a real fascinating one.

EZ: Where was it?

MG: 755 N. Dearborn St. at the corner of Chicago Avenue, not far from where Mr. Kelly’s and a number of other clubs. Folk music was the main thing on the stage there. And it was started by Albert Grossman, who grew up on the West Side and he saw that folk music was starting to become very popular among people his age. And so he got into the nightclub business and started the Gate of Horn.

He later became far better known as the manager of Bob Dylan and Janis Joplin, and the man basically responsible for bringing to the masses not just Dylan but also Peter, Paul and Mary, The Band, and many other giant performers.

People talk about Manhattan’s Greenwich Village folk scene with reverence, but they forget that it was very, very short lived. It didn’t last very long. The second Dylan became famous he left New York never to return. And all those clubs vanished very quickly. But it had a second life in the 70s in Old Town and in Lincoln Park at such places as Somebody Else’s Trouble, Holsteins and the Earl of Old Town.

There was a lot of work here for singer songwriters, and traditional folk performers – way more than they could find in other cities. Chicago was the nation’s folk capital center in the 70s.

EZ: How long did the Gate of Horn last?

MG: It opened in 1956. And moved around to several locations and lasted until the 1970s, even though by then the only connection the club had to its roots was its name. One reason the club’s original location eventually closed was because it’s where Lenny Bruce got busted for obscenity by the Chicago Police. So Grossman got out of it very quickly and moved to New York where he essentially created the blueprint for the modern rock manager.

My book covers about 100 years of history. And one theme that is consistent throughout all the chapters, is the tension between the city of Chicago, and these places that became kind of what we would consider today creative incubators for live music. Almost every club that gained notoriety and became very popular, more or less, ended its stay because of city officials. That may just be because enclaves of creativity where artists live and work become very popular and then very expensive. And then the artists and venues have to move on. But the city made that transition happen a lot faster.

EZ: Who were some of the big performers who played the Gate of Horn?

MG: It’s almost like who didn’t play there? I mean, they had comedians like Henny Youngman and Bill Cosby and singers like Odetta, Judy Collins, Peggy Seeger and bands like The New Lost City Ramblers. Pretty much anybody who was performing folk music in the 50s and 60s played The Gate of Horn. Though The Weavers, Peter, Paul and Mary and the Kingston Trio were too big at that time for such a small venue.

A major character in the book is Win Stracke. By the time the 1950s rolled around, he was already an older man, and had lived like one of those great American lives where he just had traveled around the country and worked a million different types of jobs. He was a performer on “Studs’ Place,” which was Studs Terkel’s TV situation comedy show.

In my research I got hold of Stracke’s FBI file and found that he was under surveillance, like a lot of performers were because they were considered communist radicals. So if you played folk music at a union hall, you were considered a threat to society. He was harassed by the FBI for years and years and lost all of his jobs.

So by the late 50s he’s really kind of dejected. He doesn’t know what he wants to do with his life. He’s very depressed. And so he decides to connect with a guitarist named Richard Pick. And they put together a performance of classical music songs where he’d sing and be accompanied by guitarists, and they would kind of go and you could hire them for your wedding or your other events. That’s what he’s trying to do to make money.

So he was doing that one night. And that was also the night that Odetta was in town, and Odetta was a very well known Black singer who had a big career but would play the Gate of Horn every time she was in town. Her best friend in Chicago was a homemaker in Oak Park, Dawn Greening. She was what today we’d call a Super Fan. She and her husband lived a middle-class life in Oak Park. But they would open their house to all the performers at the Gate of Horn, including Odetta.

Well one day she invited Odetta over for dinner but she said no, she wanted to go to the Gate of Horn to see a show. Dawn was really upset with her but decided to go to the show, too. And it was there she met Win Stracke and a young guitar player and singer from California named Frank Hamilton.

All three of these people met that night and eventually decided to open a school to teach folk music. They put together the first classes in Dawn Greening’s living room in Oak Park. And the classes were such a success that the next month Stracke moved them into a space in Old Town above a labor union hall a block or two from his house. And they called in the Old Town School of Folk Music . It happened very, very fast. But essentially all three of those players were strangers to one another until that one night.

EZ: OK, we’ve gotten up to about 1960. And we have another 60 some years to go and 10 minutes left to talk. Can you sum up in a few minutes? What’s happened in the last 60 years with country and folk music in Chicago?

MG: Thanks to the band Special Consensus, Chicago became a center of bluegrass, one of the first outside the South in the early 1970s. As for the singer-songwriter scene, we all know John Prine and Steve Goodman, but there were so many other great songwriters here like Michael Smith, and I hope my book brings a lot more attention to them.

The book goes very deep into the scene and talks about John Prine’s family and his brothers who are kind of an untold story, we don’t really hear a lot about them. But the story of his family is also the archetypal story of Appalachians moving here. And they settled in Maywood where his dad worked at the American Can Company. So, the last kind of third of the book focuses on, obviously, the 80s and 90s and early 2000s. And that’s the part I was most familiar with before I started. And that’s where a lot of punk rock musicians and art students moved to Chicago, primarily because it was cheap to live here, which meant creative freedom.

On the North Side, believe it or not, there were a lot of opportunities here to record and to play and to do interesting things, collaborate with other musicians. And out of that scene, there was a real interest in country music.

The earliest artists in that scene were playing alternate venues; for example, a two-woman duo named the Texas Rubies played in the subway and in performance art clubs, where they might be singing Hazel Dickens songs to an audience of people with mohawks. And other groups like Souled American that didn’t perform in conventional rock clubs, but found their way through non-traditional spaces mainly because there wasn’t a recognized venue for the kind of music they were playing.

Out of that early scene grew to this incredibly rich scene of the 90s and early 2000s, kind of dominated by bands like Wilco. But around Wilco, and around that scene, there were a lot of other artists like Andrew Bird and the Handsome Family. Jon Langford, a member of a British band called the Mekons moved here and he’s still forming a million bands.

EZ: Robbie Fulks?

MG: Robbie Fulks, who wrote the foreword to my book, is a great example of someone who is that hybrid. He listened to bluegrass music very young, when he was a teenager grew in North Carolina, moved to New York City, then moved to Chicago. I remember the first time I saw him, he was an opening act at Fitzgerald’s. And he had a first record out that I hadn’t heard yet, I didn’t even know I was gonna go see him, I was going to see the headliner.

And this guy comes out with this crazy energy, and he was extremely funny, but he wrote original songs that were in the style of traditional country, but had modern lyrics and sensibility. He channeled everything that was happening in Chicago. And the scene here opened the door for what we now recognize as “Americana.”

EZ: Is it still possible to be a major folk, major country star in Chicago and not have to move to Nashville or LA or New York?

MG: I think so.The music industry, like the rest of the world, has gone remote. You can live anywhere and make your music but what you need is a really healthy scene, places to play and audiences. What’s great about Chicago is that there’s still an audience here, and there’s still that free-spirited nature of what can go on here.

You go to an industry town like Nashville, a lot of times the people in your audience are going to be either tourists, or they’re just going to be other musicians. Here we have an audience that will still go out and hear music. And so you can get a start here. Chicago’s location has always been its greatest asset, being in the center of the country. You can just get to a lot of places a lot easier, but there’s also a creative center that allows artists to get weird and not feel like there’s a pressure to conform to the latest trend.

EZ: Thanks for this preview of the book. Where can people learn more?

MG: is the site for the book and is the site for my writing in general.

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