This summer, the University of Chicago Press published a book I wrote with “country music” in the title. Inevitably that led to people asking me at book events how I got into country music, especially since I grew up in Oak Park, a place where people speak with no discernable twang.

The answer is within the pages of my book. Chicago played a significant role in the pioneering days of country music, even before the music had the designation. In the 1920s, music played with stringed instruments was sometimes classified as just that: “With guitar accompaniment.” Otherwise, performers who sang old songs that had been passed through generations for longer than they can remember, were categorized as simply “folk.”

It turns out Chicago became a primary destination of early performers due to the emergence of the WLS Barn Dance, a Saturday night variety show that started in 1924. A migration of white Southerners was already streaming into Chicago for jobs, so it was inevitable that many ended up realizing they had raw talent. The Barn Dance gave them careers and they became the genre’s earliest stars. The migration continued for decades and soon most of the city’s North Side was teeming with people from the country, as were the collar communities like nearby Maywood. That’s where Empson Scobie Prine settled in 1924 from his native Kentucky; as an adult, his son Bill later found work as a tool and die maker at American Can Company. Empson’s grandson, John would be the one to translate his family’s stories into songs.

Country music, it turns out, was very much entwined in this area. For example, the “father of bluegrass music,” Bill Monroe, worked at Sinclair Oil in Whiting before he decided to invent the offshoot genre and subsequently, he and other pioneers like Flatt and Scruggs and the Carter Family traveled to downtown Chicago for recording sessions; when bluegrass was enjoying a revival in the 1970s, Special Consensus would expand the music by becoming the first touring bluegrass band from Chicago. 

Research for Country and Midwestern: Chicago in the History of Country Music and the Folk Revival took more than 10 years because I discovered a story so rich and deep and untold. You could fill a library with the books about Chicago blues, jazz, gospel, and so on, but not even one on this story. Part of the reason is because the city itself has done such a poor job in commemorating the long history that took place here, but a more prevailing reason is because, starting in the 1950s Nashville branded the music as exclusively a Southern thing when, in reality, its origin was rural — at a time when most of the country, including the Midwest, was dominated by farmland and ranches. 

In writing the book, I was driven to correct that record and give recognition to a century of musicians who created and contributed to an art form here that, until recently, went unrecognized. Besides research that took me to Tennessee, Kentucky, and special collections around Chicago, I spent hundreds of hours interviewing performers and club owners and record label employees and audience members whose lives were dominated by the music; those conversations — in living rooms, coffee shops, nursing homes, etc. — were sometimes the first those people had with a journalist. Why? Because up to that point, no one really cared to ask.

What I discovered was how the music had profoundly altered the lives of the people who chose to make it their life. Stardom was not Chicago’s story; it was more about the sweat equity of music-making in the clubs and recording studios. 

I entered the picture in the 1990s, a decade when Chicago was once again ahead of the curve. It was the height of “alternative country” — another subgenre that was catching fire because of a fertile independent music scene that rewarded experimentation and collaboration. Suddenly you had rock bands and auteurs like the Handsome Family, the Texas Rubies, and Robbie Fulks connecting to the themes and styles from an earlier era but reinventing it as their own. 

The genre couldn’t happen in Nashville because it required detouring from patented formulas in everything: songwriting, sound, fashion, and attitude. As a journalist I spent years covering this scene and watched it move from an underground thing to, a decade later, a genre at the forefront of the music industry, but christened with a new, more palatable name: Americana.

Cultural amnesia and indifference combined to sweep this rich history to the margins over nearly a century. That is changing, of course, at a time when people are dusting off histories hidden for years under the rug so others can hear them for the first time. For Chicago and country music, it’s a brand new day.

“Country and Midwestern: Chicago in the History of Country Music and the Folk Revival is published by the University of Chicago Press.” Visit to learn about book events or to subscribe to the book’s newsletter.

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