Two-Step and Twang: Country Comes Into the City

Music-industry insiders insist the current country-music craze is here to stay, and Gary and Dara Kron hope their new country-western nightclub Whiskey River is too. “We were looking around for what we thought was the hottest thing coming along,” explains Dara Kron, who is betting the country nightclub concept has tremendous crossover potential with the yuppie market.

Decorated with gen-u-ine weathered-wood barn siding and plenty of authentic western bric-a-brac, Whiskey River last week replaced Kronies on Clybourn, the Krons’ previous nightclub venture, which had fizzled out. Whiskey River is the first club in the city to go all country since Garth Brooks and a slew of other big-name country stars started revolutionizing the music business.

Club observers are closely watching the 12,000-square-foot Whiskey River to find out how big the in-town market is for a spot that offers barbecue pork sandwiches and other homey dishes along with two-stepping to a steady stream of live country bands and recorded country dance music. Sources say as many as four more country-western clubs could open their doors downtown in short order if Whiskey River takes off.

But some astute club owners maintain the country nightclub market is squarely in the suburbs, and they aren’t buying the Whiskey River hype. Club owner Fred Hoffmann, who also operates Excalibur, was first in the Chicago market to jump whole hog on the country bandwagon when he opened two suburban outposts last year, Dumas Walker’s in Mount Prospect and the Cadillac Ranch in Bartlett. Both clubs are thriving with a mix of music, food, and dancing. But Hoffmann doesn’t believe such a club can succeed in the city, and he is quite willing to let the Krons play guinea pigs. “I think there are more country fans in the suburbs than in the city,” maintains Hoffmann. “We’re catering to a different mentality.”

But the Krons have their supporters, not least among them WUSN-FM general manager Steve Ennen. “We’re excited about Whiskey River,” says Ennen, whose station is the city’s primary country-music outlet. Ennen and the Krons have inked a promotional deal that will give the club visibility on WUSN and provide the radio station’s city listeners with a nearby venue in which to party.

The radio tie-in can’t hurt Whiskey River’s chances of succeeding. According to the Arbitron ratings service, WUSN has the third-highest number of listeners 12 years and older among all Chicago radio stations. WUSN’s ratings have soared recently, paralleling the rise in popularity of new country artists like Brooks, Travis Tritt, Reba McEntire, Clint Black, and Billy Ray Cyrus. “Garth Brooks accounted for 63 percent of Capitol Records’ revenue for the year,” notes Ennen by way of showing country music’s newfound grip on the nation. Ennen says WUSN has picked up most of its new listeners in the 25-to-34 age bracket, whereas in the past the station’s demographics had been heavily skewed toward a 35-to-54 crowd.

Ennen is not surprised by his station’s surge in younger listeners. For the past several years country music’s sound has veered closer and closer to rock. The shift began when the Nashville studios started changing over to digital recording equipment and spending more on production. Hot west-coast record producers familiar with the country-rock sound were brought in to mastermind albums that have sold millions of copies for the most popular country stars.

The Krons are watching and waiting to see if the exploding popularity of country music bodes well for Whiskey River’s future. Dara Kron says, “When you look at what is happening to country music, we think the time is ripe for this kind of club downtown.”

No Voodoo, Just Drink

Michael Morton, son of restaurateur Arnie Morton and former proprietor of the shuttered Voodoo on the north side, expects to be back in business by mid-November with a new spot called simply Drink, a bright bar and restaurant at 541 W. Fulton, near Shelter and China Club. Morton says the emphasis in his new 7,000-square-foot space will be more on drinking and eating than was the case at Voodoo, a music and dance club that closed last August. “We’ll have pizza, pastas, and large salads prepared in an open kitchen,” notes Morton, who is opening Drink with partner Scott DeGraff. There will be no dance floor, but when the music begins later in the evening, Morton says the dance crowd will be encouraged to do their thing on top of long picnic tables.

Is Michael Cullen Coming Back?

Is Michael Cullen, late of the defunct commercial-theater producing team of Cullen, Henaghan, and Platt, about to make a comeback? Cullen says there is nothing to talk about just yet, but his partner and friend Joe Carlucci indicates that the two have worked out a lease arrangement, with an option to buy, on the 12,000-square-foot space north of the Music Box at 3741 N. Southport, currently home to the Southport Department Store. Carlucci plans to open a 4,000-square-foot Italian restaurant there by next February, and Cullen is considering opening a 300-seat theater, among other options, in the remaining space. Carlucci says his restaurant and Cullen’s venture will operate independently of each other.

Three Finalists in the Midsize Theater Search

Earlier this week the Chicago Community Trust called together several of the city’s dance and music organizations to announce that the possible locations for a new midsize theater had been narrowed to three: Navy Pier, Cityfront Centre, and Dearborn Station in the South Loop. Results of the Trust’s research to date indicate that the groups in need of a performance space will be best served by construction of a new theater rather than renovation of an existing one. Stay tuned.

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