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Back in the saddle

Long Gone Lonesome introduces a country musician to the country that inspired him


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The last show the National Theatre of Scotland brought to Chicago was Black Watch, a based-on-fact account of an elite British army unit deployed to Iraq in 2004. With a cast of 11 men, that show was so big and physical—so full of marching and fighting, dancing and dying—that they performed it at the Broadway Armory, in a space you could use for equestrian training.

This time around the NTS (working again under the auspices of Chicago Shakespeare Theater's great World Stages program) has sent us a piece small enough to slide into the Hideout in Wicker Park.

Long Gone Lonesome "could not be more different" from Black Watch, says Scottish writer and musician Duncan McLean. "This is me and my band." Normally that four-piece band, Lone Star Swing, plays western swing music. But here they're offering their portrait of Thomas Fraser, a Shetland fisherman who died in 1978. "Bizarrely," says McLean, who wrote the show, Fraser "became obsessed with country music and the blues—Jimmy Rodgers, Big Bill Broonzy, Hank Snow. I say 'bizarrely' because there was no one else within 500 miles listening to this kind of stuff."

Fraser learned guitar and taped himself on a reel-to-reel machine. But intense shyness prevented him taking it any further than that. His grandson, Karl Simpson, discovered the tapes nearly a quarter-century later and started releasing them on CD. As a result, the world is becoming aware of a man McLean calls "the most significant British country music performer there's ever been."

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