As usual this year’s Country Music Fest, the only consistently themed block of music programming during the Taste of Chicago, offers a mixed bag of mainstream stars, alt-country talents, and local cover bands. Saturday’s “Afternoon of Musical Couples” on the Taste Stage (Balbo and Columbus) looks the most promising; the Petrillo Music Shell (Columbus and Jackson) is dominated by Nashville pap.

Saturday, June 29

Taste Stage

12:30 PM Robin and Linda Williams & Their Fine Group

This Nashville couple, regulars on A Prairie Home Companion, made their first record and their first appearance on the radio show in 1975. Their gentle mix of folk, country, bluegrass, and adult pop is as good a musical equivalent as any for Garrison Keillor’s bland erudition: their voices blend nicely and their approach is always tasteful, but sometimes you just wish they’d cut loose a little. Keillor produced their latest album, Visions of Love (Sugar Hill), featuring acoustic renditions of the pair’s favorite old country tunes, among them the Conway Twitty-Loretta Lynn gem “After the Fire Is Gone,” Merle Haggard’s “Hungry Eyes,” and the Louvin Brothers hit “You’re Running Wild.”

1:45 PM Robbie & Donna Fulks

At the Old Town School earlier this year Robbie Fulks, his band, and ringers Jean Shepard and Gail Davies played songs from his superb 13 Hillbilly Giants (Bloodshot), a collection of obscure nuggets from golden-era country artists both well-known and not. Fulks’s wife, Donna, who also joined him onstage, turned out to be a great and energetic vocal foil; at this gig she’ll be featured more prominently, in front of a band that includes guitarist Grant Tye, bassist Lorne Rall, drummer Gerald Dowd, and stringed-instrument specialist Don Stiernberg. The Fulkses promise a mix of originals and classics with an emphasis on duet songs.

3:00 PM Virgil Kane

Fixtures at Carol Stream’s Manhattan Club, Virgil Kane (not a guy but a quintet fronted by husband and wife Bobby Lee and Kathi Smith) mostly cover top 40 country songs, but reportedly throw in a little blues for good measure.

4:15 PM Victoria Williams and Mark Olson & the Original Harmony Ridge Creekdippers

Victoria Williams on her own is a love-it-or-leave-it proposition: on her most recent album, 2000’s Water to Drink (Atlantic), she juggled soul, bossa nova, rock, and the rootsiness she made her name on, but none of those settings made her mouse-on-helium voice any more tolerable. In harmony with her husband, Mark Olson, in his Original Harmony Ridge Creekdippers, though, she’s easier to abide. Their latest outing, My Own Jo Ellen (released by Hightone in 2000), bears only a small resemblance to the soulful but polished country rock Olson made with Minneapolis alt-country heroes the Jayhawks; it’s homespun and slightly ragged, a tumble of acoustic guitars and aching melodies. Both Olson and Williams have new records due on Dualtone this summer.

5:30 PM Stacey Earle & Mark Stuart

Though her music isn’t entirely dissimilar to her famous brother’s, Stacey Earle is no hell-raiser–she does however have an appealing, flexible little-girl voice and a warm, literate style. She’s joined by husband Mark Stuart on guitar.

6:45 PM Richard & Penny Jo Buckner

Long one of alt-country’s most idiosyncratic performers and writers, Richard Buckner has made a virtue of myopic romanticism. In some way or another, most of his songs chronicle the breaking of a heart (and occasionally a few dishes into the bargain); sometimes you wish you could just slap some sense into the big lug. His breathy, roller-coaster phrasing is an acquired taste, but if you’re willing to join him for the ride, it goes places. This fall the Chicago Overcoat label will release Impasse, Buckner’s first album in two years. For this gig he’ll be joined by his wife, drummer Penny Jo.

Petrillo Music Shell

5:00 PM JoAnna Janet

The presence of JoAnna Janet–a new singer whose debut album won’t be out until next month–on the main stage suggests a bit of back-scratching between Dreamworks, sponsoring radio station US 99, and the city. But judging from the 30-second song samples available on her Web site, the New Orleans native will be headlining under her own power soon enough: her music is every bit as generic and inoffensive as Chely Wright’s or Mindy McCready’s.

6:00 PM Vince Gill

Vince Gill’s clear-as-a-bell tenor is undeniably purty, and by favoring weepy ballads at least five-to-one over honky-tonk stompers, he’s made it exceptionally profitable too, selling more than 22 million albums. While there are a few spirited cuts–like the gospelized “Baby Please Don’t Go”–on his most recent LP, 2000’s Let’s Make Sure We Kiss Goodbye, most of the soft-rock tearjerkers have little connection to country music in the historical sense.

Sunday, June 30

Taste Stage

12:30 PM Dr. Mark & the Sutures

This suburban band was formed in 1987 by “physicians and businessmen who enjoyed and played music as a hobby” to provide entertainment at a neighborhood block party.

1:45 PM Cedarcase

These locals are technically adept, but they play alt-country at its flannel-flyin’ worst, stringing together signifiers over generic twangy rock. “Annabelle,” from their Midwestern Girls, not only makes all the requisite booze references but advocates driving under the influence: “Shoot up I-55 until we’re all on LSD / With Pabst Blue Ribbon and Kentucky bourbon in the backseat.” I bet Bloodshot Records fills a dumpster every week with demo tapes that sound just like this.

3:00 PM Bert Cattoni Band

Chicago’s Bert Cattoni sings with a Chris Isaak-esque vibrato, but if Isaak’s croon warrants images of smooching on the beach with Helena Christensen, Cattoni’s conjures a cavort in the hay with Peg Bundy.

4:15 PM Big Guitars From Memphis

In their remarkably fluid interplay, the ax men–Lars Albrecht and onetime Off Broadway member John Ivan–of this mostly instrumental rockabilly outfit summon Les Paul in his jazzy mode. Rick Lindy will occasionally chip in some vocals, but once you hear them you’ll understand why the band’s named for its guitarists.

5:30 PM Laura Cantrell

Nashville native Laura Cantrell hosts Radio Thrift Shop, a popular radio show on the New Jersey free-form station WFMU that explores the “scratchy, swingy, and stringy.” Her own work isn’t as retro as that might suggest, but it is reminiscent of classic country. Her pleasant, slightly weedy voice may lack power, but she knows how to use it, navigating the pretty melodies with shapely phrasing that recalls the sensuality of Lucinda Williams’s earlier work and the plainspoken focus of Kitty Wells. She digs deeper into the material on her forthcoming second album, When the Roses Bloom Again (Diesel Only), than she did on her debut; she wisely avoids straining the limitations of her instrument but imbues the tunes with greater emotional nuance. She also performs at Schubas on Saturday night.

6:45 PM Clayton Bellamy Band

There’s a discernible twang to their amped-up rock, and front man Clayton Bellamy sometimes sports a cowboy hat, but this beefy quartet from Calgary isn’t exactly knocking at the gates of the Grand Ole Opry.

Petrillo Music Shell

3:00 PM Keith Urban

“There’s a line in it that says, ‘I want to be the wind that fills your sail,’ and I thought, ‘yeah, okay,'” writes bottle-blond pretty boy Keith Urban on the subject of “Your Everything,” a hit from his debut album, on his Web site. “Then it goes, ‘I want to be the hand that lifts your veil,’ and I was covered in goosebumps.” Heard enough? Wait, there’s more: he tosses a hip-hop breakbeat into “It’s a Love Thing,” and the saccharine ballad “But for the Grace of God” was cowritten with Charlotte Caffey and Jane Wiedlin of the Go-Go’s.

4:15 PM Charlie Daniels Band

Proud southern redneck libertarian Charlie Daniels is of course best known for his fluke 1979 crossover hit, “Devil Went Down to Georgia.” A fantastic fiddler and guitarist, he’s most at home playing southern-fried boogie a la the Allman Brothers and the Marshall Tucker Band, but his meatheaded patriotism has kept him popular in Nashville proper–at least until recently. On 2001’s Live! (Audium), he reprises “In America,” his response to the Iran hostage crisis, and “Still in Saigon,” a 1982 hit bemoaning the lack of respect afforded Vietnam vets, but last fall’s wildly popular post-September 11 statement “This Ain’t No Rag, It’s a Flag” (which opens with the line “This ain’t no rag, it’s a flag, and we don’t wear it on our heads”) made even the Music City establishment nervous, and after CMT asked him not to play it at the network’s Country Freedom Concert, he refused to play at all. Nothing says “I love America” like standing on ignorance as a principle.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jim Newberry.