Legendary Chicago honky tonk band The Sundowners. From left: Curt Delaney, Bob Boyd and Don Walls Credit: Mark Guarino Private Collection

PRINTERS ROW — Chicago has a rich musical history, from house music to the blues.

But did you know about the city’s country history?

Journalist, playwright and author Mark Guarino explores Chicago’s ties to country in his new book, “Country & Midwestern: Chicago in the History of Country Music and the Folk Revival,” published by The University of Chicago Press.

And on Saturday at the Printers Row Lit Fest, Jon Langford will perform following a 1:30 p.m. discussion between Guarino and Chicago Tribune columnist and WGN radio host Rick Kogan. The event will take place on the festival’s Center Stage, located on South Dearborn St., between Polk and Harrison.

Langford, who is a member of The Mekons and The Waco Brothers, is a logical guest for numerous reasons. In addition to being a key figure in Guarino’s book, he created the illustrations and lettering for the book jacket.

Guarino’s previous promotional events have featured music from Danny Black, the Texas Rubies and Robbie Fulks, who penned the book’s foreword.

Although Guarino has participated in more than a dozen events to publicize his first book, he has not done an actual reading at any of them.

“I think having me just read from the book is less interesting than having a conversation, which is more dynamic,” Guarino told Block Club Chicago. “I always wanted to have some element of music at these events because it’s a book about music, and it’s a book dedicated to musicians. It just seemed to make sense.”

With a combination of engaging prose and thorough research, the book sheds light on key Chicago contributions to the country and western music genre, like the influential WLS “National Barn Dance” radio show, which launched in Chicago in 1924, predating Nashville’s “Grand Ole Opry.” Guarino provides detailed descriptions of the birth of the University of Chicago Folk Festival and the Old Town School of Folk Music.

The volume also includes analysis of the migration of Appalachians to the Uptown neighborhood in the 1950s and ’60s and the impact it had on Chicago’s culture.

Guarino has also launched a “Country & Midwestern” newsletter, which contains photos and extended interviews that didn’t make it into the book.

“I’m using the newsletter as a self-publishing platform just to get some stuff out in the world,” said Guarino, who worked on the book for 10 years. “I’ve built up an archive, so I have a lot of material that I think would be interesting to people. It’s really about the simple act of sharing. There’s not a monetary gain here.”

The book provides compelling accounts of dozens of artists who worked in Chicago, such as bluegrass icon Bill Monroe, radio star (and future Hollywood legend) Gene Autry, folk-music titans John Prine and Steve Goodman, alt-country darlings The Handsome Family and the unheralded country trio The Sundowners, who performed in Chicago bars several nights a week between 1959 and 1989.

Hells Henchman visit the Clearwater Saloon in Chicago, 1979.
Credit: Charles Cherney Photography

Guarino, a native of Oak Park, exudes passion for his subjects, who he describes in the introduction as: “the working auteur who could freely experiment, perform, and collaborate because they existed far from the star-making structures of Hollywood, Broadway and Nashville’s Music Row. Chicago’s artists were not roped off from their audiences; instead, they lived and worked alongside them. The immediacy of making music within such an incubator community naturally gave artists who were uninterested in chasing popular trends the support to pivot left.”

In the 524-page tome, he illustrates the ways in which obscure Chicago musicians, as well as owners of long-forgotten taverns and venues, have been just as important to the city’s arts scene as high-profile stars like Wilco.

“This is a story of our city, but also of the music we listen to,” said Guarino. “So, there’s a lot of feel-good stuff in it.”

The Printers Row Lit Fest, the largest free outdoor literary showcase in the Midwest, takes place 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, rain or shine. Events will take place both indoors and outdoors. Guarino’s presentation is scheduled for at 1:30 p.m. Saturday on at the event’s Center Stage. For more information, visit the Printers Row Lit Fest website.

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