Saturday, June 30
12:30 PM AMERICAN PRIDE CLOGGERS
This Northern Illinois dance troupe--whose members range in age "from pre-teens to pre-medicare"--dances to country and bluegrass in the percussive Anglo-American folk style known as clogging, which is descended from Irish and English line dancing and was a precursor to tap.
1:45 PM SPECIAL CONSENSUS
Under the leadership of banjoist Greg Cahill, this 25-year-old bluegrass institution has given Chicago some of its finest pickers-alumni include Robbie Fulks and Dallas Wayne. Live shows offer a superb marriage of technique, history, and enthusiasm.
3 PM HACKBERRY RAMBLERS
Founded in 1933 by fiddler Luderin Darbone and accordionist-guitarist Edwin Duhon, Louisiana's Hackberry Ramblers are America's oldest and probably greatest traditional Cajun band-and in the spirit of the style, already a mutt breed, they've been known to assimilate other American musics. They've long incorporated western swing and the blues into their act, and in recent years they've collaborated with contemporary country artists like Jimmie Dale Gilmore and Rodney Crowell.
* 4:15 PM ROBBIE FULKS
The year's half over, but that leaves plenty of time for the prolific and versatile Robbie Fulks to release at least two albums. Couples in Trouble, due in August on his own Boondoggle imprint, will be his first all-original album since his brilliant, underrated Geffen debut, Let's Kill Saturday Night, in 1998; it ranges from the dark banjo ballad "In Bristol Town One Bright Day" to the screeching electric roots rocker "Dancing on the Ashes" to the almost torchy piano ballad "My Tormentor." In October the local Bloodshot label will reissue 13 Hillbilly Giants, a collection of obscure hillbilly nuggets that Fulks has been selling through his Web site over the last year. For this set, considering the occasion, I'm guessing Fulks will most likely concentrate on twangier material.
* 5:30 DON WALSER & THE PURE
Texan Don Walser, aka the Pavarotti of the Plains, may be the greatest living cowboy singer--a yodeling dynamo who blows the dust off classic honky tonk and western swing. His latest album, I'll Hold You in My Heart (Valley), holds no great surprises, but it's the first record he's recorded in some time with the crack core outfit that backs him live, the Pure Texas Band, and fittingly it conveys the energy of their excellent live show better than most.
* 6:45 PM MANDY BARNETT
On her most recent album, I've Got a Right to Cry (Sire) brassy Nashville thrush Mandy Barnett took an unapologetic trip back to the golden era of the countrypolitan style. Four of the album's tracks were produced by Owen Bradley-a key architect behind her main inspiration, Patsy Cline-but the production grandly melds urbane strings, gentle rhythms, Jordanaires-style backing vocals, and the Barnett's supple voice on tunes ranging from Patti Page's 1950 pop hit "With
My Eyes Wide Open I'm Dreaming" to Carl Smith's minor honky-tonk hit "Trademark." Barnett's reportedly preparing to record her third album, so chances are she'll test drive new material here.
PETRILLO MUSIC SHELL
5 PM ASLEEP AT THE WHEEL
Some 80 crack musicians have passed through the ranks of this popular western swing combo since it was formed by singer and guitarist Ray Benson back in 1969. But its sound has changed very little over the decades: Asleep at the Wheel is still wearing a groove in the turf between Bob Wills and Louis Jordan. Following 1999's Grammy-winning Ride With Bob (Dreamworks), its second Wills tribute, the current lineup rerecorded 14 audience favorites for The Very Best of Asleep at the Wheel (Relentless), including "Ain't Nobody Here but Us Chickens," "Sugarfoot Rag," and "Take Me Back to Tulsa," with an array of guest singers and pickers including Mandy Barnett, Brad Paisley, Huey Lewis, and Johnny Gimble. Great for dancing; no surprises.
* 6:30 PM WAYLON JENNINGS & THE WAYMORE BLUES BAND
Decades before the term insurgent country was coined, Texan Waylon Jennings was playing it. As poster boys for what was then called the outlaw country movement, he and long-haired cohorts like Willie Nelson and Billy Joe Shaver reacted to the smooth, string-heavy sound of early 70s Nashville with a stripped-down approach that evoked the music's roots. And despite all the feathers he ruffled in Music City, he became a bona fide star, attracting both country fans and rockers with his rough-and-tumble image and big, low-down-deep voice. He remained a presence on the charts through the 80s, with occasional lapses into populist hokum like "Mamas Don't Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys" and the theme from The Dukes of Hazzard, but by the 90s, like most country legends, he couldn't get a song on the radio. He took advantage of his relatively low profile to make some tough, bluesy records for non-Nasvhille imprints like Ark 21 and Justice Records, but his most recent outing, Never Say Die Live, is a live set for Sony's "alt-country" imprint, Lucky Dog. It's mix of classic material like "Good Hearted Woman" and "I've Always Been Crazy" and some new corn like "Nothing Catches Jesus by Surprise." He's joined on the record, as he will be for this gig, by his wife, Jessi Colter--who contribures her 1975 hit "I'm Not Lisa"--but also by Travis Tritt and Montgomery Gentry, who presumably prove his currency with the buff bozos Nashville now courts.
12:30 PM PAUL TYLER DUO
A member of the local old-timey group the Volo Bogtrotters, Paul Tyler is a whiz on a multitude of stringed instruments, including guitar, fiddle, and mandolin; he specializes in "traditional songs that grew out of key moments of our American past, songs of pioneers' days and western expansion, songs of the Civil War and other uncivil conflicts, and songs of the cowboys, lumberjacks, railroaders, and other laboring men."
1:45 PM K.C. WILLIAMS
Not to be confused with the porn starlet by the same name, Milwaukee's K.C. Williams has been writing and singing country music since 1979, when he switched over from the gospel and R & B circuit. He's got at least one toe in the door down in Nashville: his latest CD, City Boy, was recorded there with members of Tim McGraw's band, and his next, So Far, will feature one of Faith Hill's backing vocalists. He and his band, the Big Dawgs, serve up boilerplate commercial country, but his delivery of silly, clunky lines like "All it takes is a little whiskey in a glass / And a fine woman's pizzazz / To make a real big jackass out of me" is (perhaps unintentionally) entertaining.
3 PM CHASE DANIELS & WESTERN STAR
This workmanlike combo from Aurora delivers 80-style country, tinged with rock and full of cheese. I don't know where they came up with most of the tunes on their self-released album Bound and Determined--none of them are originals and I don't recognize the credits--but tunes like "If Life Is a Highway (Why Can't I Read the Signs?)" and "Too Many Redheads" should keep them employed by suburban line-dance bars for years to come.
* 4:15 PM ANNA FERMIN, KELLY HOGAN & sALLY TIMMS
Three of Chicago's best country singers: Fermin, who fronts the slick country-rock combo Trigger Gospel, sings with a combination of quavery sweetness and pure power; Hogan is versatile and charismatic, schooled in everything from old-school honky tonk to deep soul to indie rock and able to bring nuances from each realm to songs from the others; and Timms, a longtime member of the country-loving British punk band the Mekons, has the prettiest voice of the three, a gorgeous purr that's especially striking when applied to torch songs and murder ballads. The combination of imagination and talent promises one of the fest's most enjoyable and inspiring sets.
5:30 PM JULEPS
Comprised of some of Chicago's most popular bar-band vets--including former Insiders' Gary Yerkins and Jay O'Rourke and Robbie Fulks guitarist Grant Tye--the Juleps have been finessing a competent but unspectacular strain of roots-rock since 1997.
6:45 PM CHARLIE ROBISON
This Texan isn't even the most country singer in his own family--he's married to the Dixie Chicks' Emily Robison and his brother is singer-songwriter Bruce Robison, who's married to Kelly Willis. But he's a decent singer-songwriter in his own right. He seems strongly influenced by Robert Earl Keen on his recent second album, Step Right Up (Lucky Dog), from his dry drawl to the witty epic narratives to the cheap wordplay (as in "Well, we kissed on the boxes of liquor / And she reached down and grabbed her some Dickel," from "Life of the Party"). To be fair, he's got a stronger voice than Keen--but he also has less subtlety. Elsewhere he airbrushes the brusque roots-rock of fellow Texans Steve Earle and Joe Ely--I guess if the Nashville brass refuses to make room for the originals, they could do worse than clear a space for Charlie Robison.
PETRILLO MUSIC SHELL
3 PM * ALLISON MOORER
Last year Allison Moorer and her older sister, Shelby Lynne, both released records: Lynne's record, I Am Shelby Lynne (Island), was a killer dose of blue-eyed soul a la Dusty Springfield, but as a whole it still couldn't hold a candle to Moorer's The Hardest Part (MCA)--the best straight-up country album of 2000. Right out of the gate Moorer blows away the by-the-book neotraditionalism of her debut, delving into up fiddle-stoked honky tonk, sweet 70s country-rock, and string-swaddled country-soul. Instrumental support from folks like Buddy Miller and Jay Bennett helps, but Moorer deserves a lot of the credit--she co-wrote every song on the album. I'd be a lot more optimistic about the future of country music if just title track had made it onto the airwaves: "The hardest part of living is loving / Cause loving turns to leaving every time / And the hardest part of leaving is living."
4:10 PM JESSICA ANDREWS
The cover art for Who I Am (Dreamworks), the second album by teen thrush Jessica Andrews, features lots of soft-focus photos of the starlet that suggest her innocence and all-American wholesomeness. But by the second song she's giving that old hag Britney Spears a run for her money, admonishing her lover boy to "Carry me far away / Don't hold back, I won't break." Truly, there isn't a lick of country in Andrews's slick processed sound--it's all soft-rock schlock and warmed-over 80s pop, with vocal catches and hiccups in place of real emotional subtleties. It belongs to Nashville mostly because it ain't particularly bumpin' and the lyrics are filled with the same sort of banal shopping-mall dramas that keep middle America's drawers balled-up over dullards like Faith Hill and Tim McGraw.
5:20 PM LEE ANN WOMACK
The usual slick Nashville production taints some of the tunes on Lee Ann Womack's third album, I Hope You Dance (MCA), but it's no small feat that within that context she's managed to expose the writing talents of outsider songwriters like Buddy & Julie Miller, Bobbie Cryner, and Bruce Robison and embrace the sweet sounds of honky-tonk and bluegrass. The sweetness in her voice sometimes masks its more subtle emotional gradations, but it's impossible to miss the Appalachian fervor she brings to "Does My Ring Burn Your Finger."