Open the scruffy front door of a drab-looking corner tavern in Chicago on Friday evenings and suddenly you're in Texas, greeted by the rowdy twang of a genuine honky tonk band. Cowboy-booted couples of all ages two-step around the dimly lit scuffed wooden dance floor to the likes of Willie Nelson, Hank Williams, or one of the band's own drinking songs. "If I'm Not Drunk, I'm Not Drinking Today" is a crowd favorite.
In a city better known for the rarified sounds of a world-class symphony and legendary jazz and blues, there's a lively but almost hidden country music scene in Chicago.
This isn't the Nashville top 40 or overproduced pablum that you hear on commercial radio, or pay top-dollar to see in cavernous arenas. It's more old-timey country music, from honky-tonk to Rockabilly and Western Swing, and it's being resurrected by talented local bands like the five-man Hoyle Brothers, in otherwise nondescript venues like the Empty Bottle on Chicago's Western Avenue.
Sometimes there's a nominal cover charge, but for some gigs, like the Hoyle Brothers' Honky-Tonk Happy Hour, the music costs no more than whatever you feel like putting in the tip jar.
The Hoyles, not really brothers, have been playing at the Empty Bottle for 10 years, the last five or so with Texas-born lead singer, songwriter and acoustic guitarist Trevor McSpadden, a handsome young crooner whose deep mellow voice sounds made for the old tunes.
"I was surprised people were into it up here," McSpadden said before a recent gig. The band regularly attracts a good mix of tattooed hipsters, middle-aged professionals and gray-haired suburbanites, all drawn to the down-home sound.
The Bottle, on the edge of an old Ukrainian neighborhood, is better known for avant-garde late night bands, but the stalwart honky-tonk crowd has become a Friday night staple — McSpadden calls it almost like a weekly family reunion.
"Chicago is a host to a number of different types of music, and it's there for the taking and it's there if you look for it," said the Empty Bottle's self-described "head cheese," Bruce Finkelman.
On a recent Friday, a visitor from Naperville, a far western suburb, walked into the Bottle for the first time and commented, beaming, 'Wow, you could walk right by this place and never know it existed."
Same goes for Simon's, a divey tavern in trendy Andersonville five miles to the north, where you'll find another band popular among Chicago's country cognoscenti, the Western Elstons. Every other Wednesday night, they play a brand of Western swing so smooth and catchy that dancers somehow find room to twirl in the bar's narrow aisle.
A few blocks to the south, on a more working-class stretch of Clark Street, you could easily miss 40-year-old Carol's Pub, the granny of the city's country music scene. A little worn at the edges, Carol's still serves up pitchers of PBR and live country music four nights a week.
The Hideout is another hidden music gem, tucked away on an almost abandoned-looking side street in an old factory neighborhood northwest of downtown. A homey tavern with a back-room hall that resembles a North Woods rec room, the Hideout features an eclectic blend of live bands several nights a week, sometimes even acts known outside of Chicago, including local songwriter-guitarist Robbie Fulks, whose schticks include hillbilly country and bluegrass. Neko Case has played there; so have the Waco Brothers and local honky-tonk favorite, the Lawrence Peters Outfit.
About two miles west, the California Clipper features music and dancing Friday and Saturday nights in a 1930s-cocktail-lounge setting; good bets are local rockabilly or honky-tonk acts including The Possum Hollow Boys, Cropduster and the Black Willoughbys.