There isn't much evidence these days that this city was once the scene of a lively country music industry. But in the 1930s and '40s many famous country singers and musicians lived in Chicago and recorded their classics here. Many of them were drawn by what at the tune was the most popular country music radio show in the United States: the WLS Barn Dance. Although the Barn Dance died in 1960 and many members of its cast have retired, country-western singer and songwriter Patsy Montana--one of the show's biggest stars--has yet to quit.
On her last stop in Chicago, at Holsteins, the folk club that's now closed, Montana found the Lincoln Park scene a little too much to take. "I was never so lost in my life," she says. "My kind of people don't come out like that. There's no place to park. It wasn't my dear old Chicago at all."
Patsy Montana's dear old Chicago centered on the Barn Dance and the show's loyal audiences.
The show first aired in 1924, only a week after the station itself started up. Its immediate popularity prompted George D. Bay, a Barn Dance announcer and one of its creators, to start another country show in Nashville--that one grew into the Grand Ole Opry. For a time the Barn Dance was even more popular and influential than its Nashville counterpart. It grew too big, in fact, for its radio-station studio, and in 1932 the show moved to the Eighth Street Theatre at Wabash and Eighth.
"The Barn Dance belonged to the old Eighth Street Theatre," recalls Montana. "I'd see people stand out there with snow up to their eyeballs. Every place I work now, even in remote places, somebody will ask about WLS. I don't think they'll ever forget it."
Montana was born Rubye Blevins in Hot Springs, Arkansas. She got the name Patsy Montana--and her first real performing experience--in California, where she and two other women backed up roper Monte Montana in a trio called the Montana Cowgirls. "Monte never sang," she says. "A lot of these publicity stories got him written as the world's greatest yodeler. But he can't carry a tune in a bucket!"
For Patsy Montana, yodeling came naturally. "You either can yodel, or you can't yodel. I could always yodel. And that was during the days, you know, you had to yodel to everything. If I had recorded 'Nearer My God to Thee,' I'd have had to yodel to it."
Montana got her start on the Barn Dance in 1934 on a visit to the World's Fair in Chicago.
"My mother suggested I go by radio station WLS and say hello to her favorite announcer. I had never heard of WLS, but I did it, just because I promised my mother." Montana walked straight into an audition for the lead singer of a WLS hillbilly band called the Kentucky Ramblers. She got the part and never went home.
Montana kept her cowgirl image, which was popular at the time, and eventually the Kentucky Ramblers adopted it, too, changing their costume to western and their name to the Prairie Ramblers. She made all her early records with the Prairie Ramblers, and they were regular performers on the Barn Dance and in the show's road units. Having seen "the writing on the wall" for the National Barn Dance, in 1952 Montana and her husband left Chicago for southern California.
For obvious reasons, Patsy Montana was dubbed the Yodeling Cowgirl early on in her recording career. Later, she became known as "the first female country-western singer with a million-seller" after a song she wrote and recorded--"I Want to Be a Cowboy's Sweetheart"--sold one million copies. Today she has a brand-new record out on Chicago's Flying Fish label called The Cowboy's Sweetheart, and is scheduled to perform this weekend at the University of Chicago Folk Festival. She will be receiving a governor's award for career achievement from the Chicago chapter of the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences (NARAS) during one of the shows.
Montana is performing at the U. of C. with the Sundowners--Don Wall, Bob Boyd, and Curt Delaney--a local country-western band that has played regularly at the R.R. Ranch for the last 30 years. Unfortunately, the Ranch occupies the basement of a North Loop building that's scheduled to be torn down this winter The Ranch's owners are scheduled to vacate February 11 and are currently trying to settle on another Loop location.
The U. of C. Folk Festival takes place at Mandel Hall, 5706 S. University. Patsy Montana and the Sundowners are included on programs at 3 PM Saturday and 7:30 PM Sunday. Tickets are $4-$12; for more information call 702-9793 or 702-7300.