CHICAGO Country Music Festival: The city will stage music during all eleven days of this year’s Taste of Chicago, but the Country Music Festival–days two and three of Taste, this Friday and Saturday–provides the only thematically continuous block of programming. This year’s theme is ostensibly “Americana, the other country,” but many of these acts look like the same country to me.

Petrillo Music Shell.

5:00 PM Billy Dean

A mainstream hunk who looks–and sounds–like he spends more time in front of his mirror than behind his microphone.

5:50 PM John Anderson

Giant-voiced John Anderson looked like he had Nashville in the palm of his hand during the early 80s, when he racked up more than a million sales of his hokey but infectious honky-tonk rocker “Swingin’,” but his stint as a new-traditionalist heavy was unfortunately brief, and for most of the rest of the decade he chased crossover dreams. He got his hat act together on 1992’s Seminole Wind (BNA), which includes both the number-one country hit “Straight Tequila Night” and the dusky title track, an even better song that also offers a bit of commentary on the despoiling of Florida’s Everglades. Subsequent releases were serviceable at best–a real low point was the recut version of “Swingin’,” with sappy horns and breathy female backing vocals. But with last year’s terrific Takin’ the Country Back (Mercury), Anderson reinvigorated himself yet again; if he holds this course, he’ll be fine company for trad country stalwarts like George Strait, Alan Jackson, and Randy Travis.

7:10 PM Suzy Bogguss

There are far worse creatures at the top of the country charts than Suzy Bogguss. Her recently released seventh album, Nobody Love, Nobody Gets Hurt (Capitol), contains its fair share of oversentimental balladry–hell, a few years ago All My Children borrowed one of her songs–but the more upbeat stuff belies her image as a shopping-mall darling, revealing surprising heft and grit. She’s got good taste when it comes to picking tunes; Kim Richey, Matraca Berg, Julie Miller, and Bobbie Cryner are among the latest record’s contributing songsmiths. And when she cuts loose and lets her voice get husky, defying Nashville’s mandate that women be squeaky-clean and cute as a button, Bogguss can get by on personality alone.

Taste Stage.

12:30 PM Thataway

A local combo that “does today’s latest country hits and country standards.”

1:45 PM Porter County Line

Another Chicago-area band, specializing in “music crossing all trends–from the Allman Brothers and Van Morrison to the Band and the Eagles.”

3:00 PM Anna Fermin’s Trigger Gospel

Although Anna Fermin is still finding her way as a stylist, her voice knows exactly where it’s going. Her singing is so surefire that, along with the tasty leads of guitarist Andon Davis, it holds together what might otherwise come off as an unwieldy amalgam of rockabilly, gospel, folk rock, and hard country.

4:15 PM Special Consensus

Chicago’s finest bluegrass band, quotes or no quotes.

5:30 PM Truesdells

These two brothers–their names are actually Brien and Frank Prenevost–enjoy wading into the crowd with their wireless equipment. They play “a blend of new and classic country music”–although, little devils that they are, they’ve “been known to throw in some classic rock ‘n’ roll when requested.” Shout out for “Sweet Leaf.”

6:45 PM Mollys

This group from Tucson reportedly mixes country, Tex-Mex, and Celtic music.

Petrillo Music Shell.

3:00 PM Brad Hawkins

“Armed with boundless enthusiasm and talent to match,” this Nashville product and “engaging young entertainer” names Bob Seger as his favorite singer and claims Restless Heart as an early influence. You may remember Hawkins from his role as Ryan Steele on the syndicated TV show VR Troopers, but you’d probably be better off forgetting him altogether.

3:50 PM Restless Heart

Few country acts have crossed over to the adult contemporary charts as often as this Nashville juggernaut. They broke up in 1994, but, the cycles of nostalgia being as short as they are, Restless Heart decided to re-form and cash in this year, following the release of their utterly unlistenable Greatest Hits. Their mix of the Eagles and Chicago is, unbelievably, much worse than it sounds on paper.

5:10 PM Faith Hill

Although she favors Home Shopping Network wholesomeness over strip-mall sleaze–more credit than I can give, say, Shania Twain–Faith Hill is still just another Nashville automaton. The only thing she’s ever done that impressed me was her hit version of the Janis Joplin vehicle “Piece of My Heart”–and only because she somehow managed to purge the song of any trace of soul. It’s like she wants to be called the female Michael Bolton.

Taste Stage.

12:00 pm Country Showdown

The five winners of WUSN FM’s Chicago showdown–in no particular order, the Fault Line Band, Lorence, Cindy Rose, Jim Novack, and Gary Kraen–compete for a spot in the state finals of this national contest. Each act gets three tunes or 15 minutes onstage, and although there will be a panel of judges made up of local label reps, you are advised to “cheer on your favorite.”

2:30 PM Reckless Kelly

Willy Braun, Reckless Kelly’s singer, has a rasp in his voice that sounds a bit affected to me, but I haven’t had the chance to see if he knits his brow or talks with a fake twang onstage–for now I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt. Besides, on the band’s debut album, Millican (Cold Spring), these young Oregon-to-Austin transplants deliver credible amped-up honky-tonk a la Steve Earle, and earlier this year they scored best-new-band honors at the Austin Music Awards, where folks take this roots-rock business very seriously.

3:45 PM Ruthie & the Wranglers

Singer Ruthie Logsdon loves that old rockabilly hiccup, so it’s no surprise that, although her D.C.-based band does dabble in the occasional brisk two-beat romp, most of 1996’s Wrangler City (Lasso) is pure retro-greaser stuff. The Wranglers lack the panache of masters like Big Sandy & His Fly-Rite Boys, but when the sun’s baking your beer-addled head, it won’t matter much.

5:00 PM Ex-Husbands

More bored rock boys discover twang.

6:30 PM Derailers

Although the Bakersfield sound of Buck Owens and Wynn Stewart remains the Derailers’ foundation, the Austin quartet’s second album, Reverb Deluxe (Sire/Watermelon), cleverly incorporates bits of the Beatles and the Everly Brothers, a few soul shadings, and an impeccable poppy succinctness.

It’s not exactly innovative, but the songs are so good, and the band

pulls them off so gracefully, that it’s hard to feel like complaining.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Derailers photo by Marinna Chavez; Faith Hill photo by Russ Harington.