Mark Guarino

Feb 5, 2024

Country and Midwestern

Chicago in the History of Country Music and the Folk Revival

University of Chicago Press 2023

The untold story of Chicago's pivotal role as a country and folk music capital.

Chicago is revered as a musical breeding ground, having launched major figures like blues legend Muddy Waters, gospel soul icon Mavis Staples, hip-hop firebrand Kanye West, and the jazz-rock band that shares its name with the city. Far less known, however, is the vital role Chicago played in the rise of prewar country music, the folk revival of the 1950s and 1960s, and the contemporary offspring of those scenes.

In Country and Midwestern: Chicago in the History of Country Music and the Folk Revival (U Chicago Press, 2023), veteran journalist Mark Guarino tells the epic century-long story of Chicago's influence on sounds typically associated with regions further south. Drawing on hundreds of interviews and deep archival research, Guarino tells a forgotten story of music, migration, and the ways that rural culture infiltrated urban communities through the radio, the automobile, and the railroad. The Midwest's biggest city was the place where rural transplants could reinvent themselves and shape their music for the new commercial possibilities the city offered. Years before Nashville emerged as the commercial and spiritual center of country music, major record labels made Chicago their home and recorded legendary figures like Bill Monroe, The Carter Family, and Gene Autry. The National Barn Dance--broadcast from the city's South Loop starting in 1924--flourished for two decades as the premier country radio show before the Grand Ole Opry. Guarino chronicles the makeshift niche scenes like "Hillbilly Heaven" in Uptown, where thousands of relocated Southerners created their own hardscrabble honky-tonk subculture, as well as the 1960s rise of the Old Town School of Folk Music, which eventually brought national attention to local luminaries like John Prine and Steve Goodman. The story continues through the end of the twentieth century and into the present day, where artists like Jon Langford, The Handsome Family, and Wilco meld contemporary experimentation with country traditions.

Featuring a foreword from Grammy-nominated singer-songwriter Robbie Fulks and casting a cross-genre net that stretches from Bob Dylan to punk rock, Country and Midwestern rediscovers a history as sprawling as the Windy City--celebrating the creative spirit that modernized American folk idioms, the colorful characters who took them into new terrain, and the music itself, which is still kicking down doors even today.

Mark Guarino covers national news and culture from Chicago for the Washington Post, ABC News, the New York Times, and other outlets. He was the Midwest bureau chief for the Christian Science Monitor for seven years. Mark on Twitter.

Bradley Morgan is a media arts professional in Chicago and author of U2's The Joshua Tree: Planting Roots in Mythic America. He manages partnerships on behalf of CHIRP Radio 107.1 FM, serves as a co-chair of the associate board at the Gene Siskel Film Center of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and volunteers in the music archive at the Old Town School of Folk Music. Bradley Morgan on Twitter.

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Bradley Morgan

Bradley Morgan is a media arts professional in Chicago and author of U2's The Joshua Tree: Planting Roots in Mythic America. He manages partnerships on behalf of CHIRP Radio 107.1 FM, serves as a co-chair of the associate board at the Gene Siskel Film Center of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and volunteers in the music archive at the Old Town School of Folk Music. Bradley Morgan on Twitter.

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