Chip Covington began playing music at 11, when his father bought him a banjo at a garage sale; he’s played bass in the Chicago Bluegrass Band for the last five years and picked banjo in Whiskey Hollow for the last dozen. But Covington has never been satisfied with just playing. For him, music has always been a catalyst for social interaction, a way of meeting new people and sharing a collective experience, and so he’s consistently found ways to present other musicians’ live performances over the past two and a half decades. “It’s like a disease,” he says of his compulsion to organize and publicize shows and festivals. (The latest installment of his “Bluegrass Legends” concert series kicks off this Sunday in Evanston.)
Covington, 48, is best known locally for having owned Biddy Mulligan’s, the now defunct north-side club he bought not once, but twice. He first acquired the bar in 1978, and the hard-core Chicago blues acts he booked drew a steady clientele of Northwestern students, tourists, and aficionados from all over the city. “I would buy ads in the Defender,” he says, “and you can’t do that if you’re going to bring in ‘Hey Bartender’ bands from Schaumburg.” He also met his future wife, Sari, in ’78, and they were married at the club the following year. In 1981 he sold Biddy’s so he’d have time to start a family; he and Sari moved to her native Finland, where he landed a job doing sound for a film company.
In Helsinki, where the couple lived, Covington met and jammed with a surprising number of bluegrass enthusiasts. Though the Covingtons (by then with two kids in tow) returned to the Chicago area in 1983, they made regular trips back to Finland. On one such visit Covington was busking with an old pal, Matti Lehtola, and the two decided to set up what would become the country’s first bluegrass festival. Covington lined up American talent, Lehtola gathered the Finnish acts, and in 1988 the first edition of the festival hit the stage in the small town of Ruotsinpyhtaa.
Over the next ten years Covington booked topflight acts like Hot Rize, Rhonda Vincent, and the Chicago quartet Special Consensus for the festival, and often organized short Finnish tours for the groups to offset the cost of flying musicians overseas. Covington also started putting together blues tours in ’89 and selling sponsorship of the packages to Finnish beer companies. When the Finnish economy tanked in the early 90s, Covington stopped booking tours. Around that time he heard from another old bluegrass friend, Tommi Viksten, who’d begun playing with a folk ensemble named Varttina; Covington spent a couple of years managing, promoting, and booking the band, which spearheaded a Scandinavian folk revival. But he quit when they moved toward a poppier sound, and by 1993 he was working for his brother, selling advertising specialties like stickers and mugs. He had mostly left the biz behind–though he still booked the Ruotsinpyhtaa festival.
But in 1995 he noticed Biddy Mulligan’s was sitting vacant and up for sale, and he couldn’t resist. He bought the club a second time; six months later he shut it down. The blues market had become oversaturated since the late 70s–worse still, the drinking age had gone up to 21, keeping lots of college kids out of the club. “That was a disaster,” he says of the failed venture, writing it off now as “romantic foolishness.” But in a few years he was back to scheming.
Although the Old Town School of Folk Music, Schubas, and FitzGerald’s have all occasionally booked bluegrass, many of the bands Covington was sending to Finland (mostly traditionalists from the south with no crossover ambitions) never played in town. So in 1998 he started presenting concerts at the Bean Counter, an Evanston coffee shop, until it closed two years later. In fall 2001 he started the “Bluegrass Legends” series, which now consists of eight concerts a year. Over the last two and half years he’s brought in James King, Larry Sparks, and David Davis, among others. Covington doesn’t advertise, instead drawing audiences from his own mailing list, which is 800 strong and growing. “It’s great for me because I have kids that are interested in music and they all play,” he says. “I want them to experience the talent on a personal, intimate level and to know it’s a lot more than record sales or anything like that, it’s about people. It’s a community and that’s where it’s at.”
The great Melvin Goins, longtime guitarist in Ralph Stanley’s band, opens the 2003 series on Sunday at 2:30 PM. All shows take place at the American Legion Hall, 1030 Central, Evanston. For more info about the series go to www.chicagobluegrass.com or call 847-251-0574.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Saverio Truglia.