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13th Annual Chicago Country Music Festival

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As usual this year's Country Music Festival in Grant Park offers the only consistently themed block of music programming during the Taste of Chicago. But within the broader genre the lineup is as big a hodgepodge as any in recent memory. The Petrillo Music Shell (Columbus and Jackson) headliners are pretty much all Nashville assembly-line products, with the notable exception of Loretta Lynn. There will be a few quality acts performing on the Taste Stage (at Balbo and Columbus), while Sunday's program is being billed as an "Afternoon of 'Old' Country."

Saturday, June 28

Taste Stage

12:30 PM DAYNA MALOW

Dayna Malow earned a degree in jazz vocal studies from the University of Miami, sang with the Chicago jump blues act Speakeasy Swing, fronted the Milwaukee cover band Orphans, and performed in an a cappella musical called Klub Kokomo. But on her debut album, Anywhere but Here (Jabberwocky), she's singing bland pop country. Throw enough darts, one of them might stick.

1:45 PM BERNIE GLIM & THE COUNTRY ROADS BAND

This Oak Lawn group apparently does it all, drawing material from a 1,500-song repertoire that, its bio states, covers everything from "bluegrass to jazz, from Sinatra to Arrowsmith." Considering the occasion they'll likely keep to their country stuff.

3:00 PM BRENT WOODALL & THE NATCHEZ TRACE BAND

This band from Winchester, Virginia, plays soul-streaked country pop that seems targeted for big-time airplay. Given the nature of the industry, though, Woodall might need to dye his gray hair blond to even get heard.

4:15 PM SHANNON RAYE & THE DIAMONDBACK BAND

According to her bio this singer from Crown Point, Indiana, "has a more contemporary country music style that contains influences from traditional country music, pop, rock and classical music."

5:30 PM BRUCE ROBISON

Austin singer-songwriter Bruce Robison is the unsung victim of the recent backlash against the Dixie Chicks. He wrote their hit "Travelin' Soldier," a pretty antiwar ballad that was riding high on the country charts before folks started making bonfires out of Chicks CDs. The husband of Kelly Willis fashions pleasantly catchy folk rock, hushed honky-tonk, and sentimental balladry that comes to life in the grip of others (Lee Ann Womack, Tim McGraw, and Gary Allen have all recorded Robison tunes) but lays flat in his own hands. After several albums for Sony's Lucky Dog imprint he went the indie route with Country Sunshine (Boar's Nest, 2001), suggesting that like hit machine Jim Lauderdale's, his own recordings are destined to sell modestly.

6:45 PM JIMMIE DALE GILMORE

While this mystical Texan has written a few classics, such as "Dallas" and "Tonight I Think I'm Gonna Go Downtown," I appreciate him best when he's applying his ethereal warble to tunes by others--provided he can remember the words. Like George Jones, he can transform a song just by singing it, imbuing it with different shades of meaning every time he so much as bends a note. On his most recent album, One Endless Night (Windcharger)--a gorgeous piece of work masterfully produced by Buddy Miller--his voice is one of the most beautiful sounds in all of American music.

Petrillo Music Shell

5:00 PM STEVE AZAR

Country music is chockablock with anthems celebrating those precious hours off the time clock. Now there's one more. On Steve Azar's single "I Don't Have to Be Me ('til Monday)" the slick Mississippi-bred country-pop craftsman suggests that his time away from work isn't just a respite but a kind of fantasy realm: "Friday, Saturday, Sunday / I ain't gonna face reality," he sings. Sadly, his most recent album, Waitin' on Joe (Mercury), is tedious cookie-cutter mainstream country, full of soap opera balladry, lunkheaded rock--"Goin' to Beat the Devil (to See My Angel Tonight)," ugh--and lame metaphors like "Oh, love is a river and the river's on the rise."

6:15 PM LORETTA LYNN

The greatest living female singer in country music got a booster shot of exposure last month when the White Stripes enlisted her to open a New York gig. But Loretta Lynn has nothing to prove to anyone. She's led a legend's life, working her way up from the one-room log cabin where she was raised in Butcher Holler, Kentucky, to become country's most popular singer for several decades. Her 2000 album, Still Country (Audium), isn't her best, but she delivers the songs with fighting spirit and sass. "Working Girl," a tune written by Matraca Berg and Randy Scruggs, challenges media-driven notions of female beauty--"Well, they say they represent me / In the fashion magazines / Well, honey all I see / Is these girls don't look like me"--with candor that recalls Lynn's blunt originals in the late 60s and 70s. Whether throwing down against a drunk louse on "Don't Come Home a Drinkin' (With Lovin' on Your Mind)," getting feisty with a female interloper on "Fist City," asserting her independence on "I Wanna Be Free," or celebrating the freedom of birth control in "The Pill," she's never been anyone's pawn in Music City and she's followed no one's rules but her own. As she insisted on a 1971 hit, "If you're looking at me / You're looking at country." It's too bad so few artists in Nashville have the gumption to follow her lead.

Sunday, June 29

Taste Stage

12:30 PM HALF DAY BLUEGRASS BANd

This local quintet ("all northern Illinois urban and suburban professionals by day," says their bio) tackle a variety of classics with pride and skill. The vocals tend to be flat and the instrumental execution lacks snap, but they ought to open the day's festivities on a passably enjoyable note.

1:45 PM GIN PALACE JESTERS

This local honky-tonk combo is led by former Three Blue Teardrops front man Dave Sisson. According to the band's bio, it trades in that old band's "punk aggression" for "western flair."

3:00 PM CORNMEAL

I haven't heard this local acoustic combo--due to release its debut album on Orange Recordings later this year--but all indicators point to jammy bluegrass a la Leftover Salmon and Yonder Mountain String Band. To wit, from the band's bio: "The energetic array of improv jams and blues, jazz, rock, and pop arrangements set this group undeniably apart."

4:15 PM WESTERN BOX TURTLES

This Milwaukee quintet serves up a fine strain of small-combo western swing. They also toss in some well-crafted rockabilly and jump blues for a time-specific mix that brings to mind Big Sandy & His Fly-Rite Boys.

5:30 PM SALLY TIMMS

It can be easy to take this Mekons charter member for granted, especially with the laid-back and self-effacing attitude she brings to her live performances, but in this context she'll seem like a gift from the heavens. Timms's gorgeous, fluid voice is best suited to the dark ballads that fill her ad hoc sets, and the sweet pathos she brings to something like the Handsome Family's "The Sad Milkman" shows how foolish it is to dismiss singers who don't write most of their own material.

6:45 PM SOUTH AUSTIN JUG BAND

This quintet doesn't play jug band music--it doesn't even have a jug player. These Texans do seem to have an expansive view of bluegrass, which they infuse with swing rhythms and apply to contemporary fare, including songs by Townes Van Zandt and Jerry Garcia.

Petrillo Music Shell

3:00 PM JIMMY WAYNE

North Carolina native Jimmy Wayne lists his influences as Ronnie Milsap, and, um, Hall & Oates, Lionel Richie, and Queensryche. At press time I had only heard "Stay Gone," the first single from his eponymous debut album on Dreamworks, which sounds guaranteed to strike a chord with the QVC set.

3:45 PM DEANA CARTER

Deana Carter sold more than four million copies of her 1995 debut album, Did I Shave My Legs for This?, and she's been searching for ways to replicate that success ever since. But though she's remained true to the high-gloss honky-tonk and soft-rock balladry that landed her on the charts, she hasn't sold the same number of records. On her new I'm Just a Girl (Arista), she's injected the formula with some sunny California pop, and while it's doubtful it'll put Carter back on top, it certainly makes her a more listenable alternative to, say, Faith Hill, or, hell, Liz Phair.

5:00 PM JOHN MICHAEL MONTGOMERY

This Kentucky native emerged during the early 90s hat-act craze, and before long he was cranking out sappy pop-country balladry with the worst of 'em. His most recent album, Pictures (Atlantic), is loaded with gloppy strings, Cheez Whiz backing vocals, and here-comes-the-melodramatic-payoff drum fills. So long as he keeps promising his sensitive fidelity to the ladies it's hard to imagine anything threatening his popularity. A total bore.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Russ Harrington.

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