The Country Music Festival in Grant Park is traditionally the only consistently themed block of music during the Taste of Chicago. Saturday’s lineup is billed as “Don’t Mess With Texas,” though Willie Nelson, who’d originally been scheduled to headline, has canceled all his May and June dates to undergo carpal tunnel surgery. (His replacement, Wynonna Judd, was raised in Kentucky, California, and Tennessee.) Sunday’s program, dominated by local acts, is more stylistically varied–and this year we’ve been spared the paint-by-numbers cover bands. The headliners perform at the Petrillo Music Shell, Columbus and Jackson; all other performances take place at the Taste Stage, on the southwest corner of the same intersection.

* = recommended


Taste Stage


Lisa and Roberta Morales, based in San Antonio, combine country twang and blues grit a la Bonnie Raitt on their original material. But their pretty vocal harmonies sound much better on the Spanish-language album Para gloria (Luna), which consists almost entirely of traditional tunes they heard growing up in Tucson, Arizona. Lisa’s husband, David Spencer, contributes fiery, fluent Spanish guitar, and the sisters inhabit the songs so naturally–except for a treacly cover of Frank and Nancy Sinatra’s “Somethin’ Stupid,” retitled “Algo Tonto”–that it seems they’ve been singing them all their lives.


Inspired by Texas troubadours like Guy Clark and Robert Earl Keen, this Waco native immersed himself in Austin’s left-wing country-rock scene in his early 20s; he’s been at it for more than a decade now. His band includes fine guitarist Rob Gjersoe, who also works behind the Flatlanders, and his twangy originals are pleasant enough despite the shopworn melodies. Unfortunately his thin, unsteady voice can’t instill them with much conviction or charisma.


Austin fixture Terri Hendrix has had the good fortune to work with producer Lloyd Maines on five of her albums, including the latest, The Art of Removing Wallpaper (Wilory). Her originals run the gamut–honky-tonk, blues, folk-rock, confessional singer-songwriter fare–but Maines’s Dobro and steel guitar are the most memorable things about them. Lately Hendrix has developed a fondness for “rap” delivery, which would be bad enough if she stuck to her own tunes–but on the new record she applies her reedy pipes to a straight reading of LL Cool J’s “I Need Love.” I need Maalox.


The recent best-of collection Love Snuck Up (HighTone) is just the latest proof that Buddy and Julie Miller are one of the most consistent, powerful, and appealing acts in country rock–and have been for the past decade. Together and on solo outings they’ve developed a dynamic idiom of their own, paying no heed to the boundaries between old-fashioned honky-tonk, rustic folk rock, rockabilly, and blues. (In case you’re wondering about the Texas connection, the couple have roots in Austin, where they met in the early 80s.) While Julie’s stuff is dark and introspective, Buddy is gregarious; his nasal voice is soulful and penetrating, and though he plays guitar with fiery intensity, he’s always tasteful–not for nothing have Steve Earle and Emmylou Harris enlisted his services. Buddy appears solo here; he also plays at FitzGerald’s in Berwyn on Sunday night.


For the past few years Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Joe Ely, and Butch Hancock have put their solo careers on the back burner to play together again as the Flatlanders. The group’s story has already made the rounds: their brief original incarnation in Lubbock produced a 1972 debut that sank without a trace, but Gilmore, Ely, and Hancock later became so successful on their own that Rounder reissued the record in 1990 as More a Legend Than a Band. On the trio’s solid new album, Wheels of Fortune (New West), everyone sings lead and contributes material, but the performances are so casual and accomplished they seem perfunctory. Thirty-two years ago these guys were eager to make their mark; the kaleidoscopic blend of folk, country, and rock they came up with has defined much of the best Texas roots music since. The Flatlanders may still love to play, but these days it sounds like they’re just doing their job.

Petrillo Music Shell


Houston native Rodney Crowell cut his teeth as a songwriter at Bishop’s Pub in Nashville in the early 70s, trying to impress Guy Clark and Townes Van Zandt. His 1988 album, Diamonds & Dirt, was the first country album to produce five number one singles, but in the 90s he lost the commercial magic; by the end of the decade he’d parted ways with MCA. Since then, ironically, he’s done some of his best work: on The Houston Kid (recorded on his own dime and released by Sugar Hill in 2001) and Fate’s Right Hand (DMZ/Epic, 2003) he concocts a sparkling mix of honky-tonk, Beatlesque pop, and rockabilly, and his lyrics face down the bitter lessons of middle age with a fine fighting spirit.


When you’re a bona fide country icon like Wynonna Judd, the music you make matters less than your backstory–so Wynonna’s most recent album, What the World Needs Now Is Love (Curb), shouldn’t hurt her reputation much. Though she can sell the hell out of a song, she’s at her most blowsy, mawkish, and shameless on this mishmash of soft-rock ballads and soulless slow jams. (She only makes room for a couple of country tunes–one of them a Judds reunion.) Two of the songs are from movie sound tracks, and Jeff Beck, that great country picker, lends his talents to a lachrymose cover of Foreigner’s “I Want to Know What Love Is.”


Taste Stage


Urban Djin has been serving up hot pompadour rock since he started Big Daddy Sun & the Outer Planets in Champaign in 1979. With his band Red Dust, the singer and guitarist also makes room for western swing and honky-tonk.


Special Consensus has been Chicago’s best traditional bluegrass outfit since 1975. The band’s most recent album, Route 10 (Pinecastle, 2002), delivers a knockout combination of sweet vocal harmonies and hot picking (courtesy of banjoist Greg Cahill and mandolinist Josh Williams, who’s also a terrific lead singer). Here founder Cahill will perform with an all-new lineup.


Despite his stage name, Bill Harndon hardly limits himself to rockabilly. He started playing in the 80s with a punk band called Sponge (no, not the guys who did “Plowed”), and he tosses bits of blues, zydeco, and even surf into the Coyotes’ din.


Like many early alt-country acts, these locals came to twang from punk. On their 2002 debut, Ain’t Inventin’ the Wheel (Failed Experiment), singers Nate Van Allen and Sappy harmonize earnestly and the two-beat stomps come fast and furious; what the music lacks in finesse it makes up for in spirit.


This local Americana outfit borrows here and there from Neil Young, the Eagles, and early Wilco, but its music is much less than the sum of those parts.

Petrillo Music Shell


Decades ago aspiring country stars made pilgrimages to Nashville; Oklahoma native Kellie Coffey headed to LA and became a singing waitress. A demo tape landed her a few jobs–recording songs for Disney theme parks, backing up Barbra Streisand–and eventually Geoff Koch, her future husband, hired her to sing on the sound track to the TV show Walker, Texas Ranger. Clearly she was ready for a country career. The title track from her 2002 debut, When You Lie Next to Me (BNA), seems to have become a top-ten country hit by appealing to soccer moms: the whole formula’s in place, from the slick soft-rock arrangement and blustery vocals to the lyrics that sound cribbed from an airport romance novel.


For a mainstream country hit maker, Brad Paisley kicks ass. (That may not seem like much of a compliment, given the competition–but hang on.) Though he sprinkles his performances with sentimental hokum and touches of pop, it’s always obvious that he’s more indebted to Vern Gosdin than to Lionel Richie. Plus he’s got a killer eye for detail and a sharp sense of humor. On “Celebrity,” from 2003’s Mud on the Tires (Arista Nashville), he snaps, “I’ll get to cry to Barbara Walters when things don’t go my way / And I’ll get community service no matter which law I break.” Paisley mostly writes his own songs, and he’s a terrific guitarist, rooted in honky-tonk and western swing. He’s also got good taste in guest stars: Little Jimmy Dickens, Bill Anderson, and George Jones ham it up on “Spaghetti Western Swing,” and Merle Haggard guitarist Redd Volkaert drops in for a solo. Paisley’s hardly the second coming of Hank (or the fourth, or whatever), but it sure is nice when a young hat act can tell racial profiling from patriotism.

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