Since 2004 Plastic Crimewave (aka Steve Krakow) has used the Secret History of Chicago Music to shine a light on worthy artists with Chicago ties who’ve been forgotten, underrated, or never noticed in the first place.
As I’ve aged, my musical obsessions have shifted a bit. I still enjoy noisier, headier sounds—psychedelia, prog, garage trash, punk, experimental music—but I often want a “peaceful easy feeling” instead, which calls for some heartfelt country rock. I’ve always responded to the groups that put down the genre’s roots, especially the Flying Burrito Brothers, Gene Clark, and Mike Nesmith’s First National Band, but lately I find myself exploring artists from later in the 70s too. By then the genre had splintered a bit, and one of its offshoots was southern rock, with its jamming guitars and outlaw vibes—a la the Allman Brothers, 38 Special, and the Outlaws (natch). The Windy City had its own small rootsy contingent back then, and one local band covered all the Americana bases: Ouray.
Formed in 1975, Ouray are still active today. Like more than a few great rock (and country-rock) bands, Ouray coalesced around a pair of talented brothers. Frank and Bo Pirruccello, raised in Evanston, took up music as kids: Frank started on piano and then switched to guitar in the early 60s, inspired by the surf sound of the Ventures. Bo started on clarinet in his grade-school orchestra and got his first guitar for his 11th birthday.
Frank and Bo both loved the harmonies of the Beach Boys, the Everly Brothers, and the Kingston Trio, and by the time the Beatles hit the States in 1964, the two of them had fallen under the spell of the British Invasion. While in high school at New Trier East, Frank started a few garage bands (the Gremlins, the Peep Show), which achieved some local popularity but never released any recordings. Bo was a few years younger, and he says his own bands “rarely got out of the basement.”
Frank helped start the country-inflected Baraboo in 1972, but though they recorded demos they never built much momentum. When he quit in 1974, he knew he wanted a new group to play the songs he’d started writing. In 1975 he and Bo founded Ouray, named after a Native American chief of the Ute tribe in Colorado.
“I was living in Oklahoma and had taken up the pedal steel guitar,” says Bo. “I moved back up to Chicago as Frank was assembling the other members. The band woodshedded for several months, playing mainly Frank’s compositions. We added ‘Too Tall’ Tom Peters on bass, Hap Harriman on lead guitar, Liz Thorsen on violin and guitar, and Bill Hooper on drums. ‘Too Tall’ came on the recommendation of Rick Mann from the Flock, who was a neighbor in Evanston and played pedal steel with Frank in Baraboo.”
Ouray didn’t stay a six-piece for long. “Thorsen and Hooper both wandered away after a year or two, and we replaced them with Ted Rawlings, another high school acquaintance,” Bo says. “Ted was a great drummer and could sing harmonies, so we dropped down to a five-piece band.”
After Rawlings came aboard in 1976, this lineup gigged hard for a couple years before making a record. “Initially we played a couple of clubs on a regular basis—Poor Richard’s in Skokie, Minstrel’s in Chicago, Durty Nellie’s in Palatine, and the Alley in Highwood—before becoming mainstays in the music venues of the day,” says Bo. “We toured lots of college towns from New York to Iowa to Indiana, Wisconsin to Missouri. Later we concentrated on showcase venues like the Park West, B’Ginnings, the Ivanhoe Theatre, the Vogue Theatre in Indianapolis, and the Belle Starr, which was a beloved venue near Buffalo.”
The hardworking band also played ChicagoFest and Milwaukee’s Summerfest and opened for like-minded bands such as the New Riders of the Purple Sage, Commander Cody, Asleep at the Wheel, and the Dixie Dregs. Ouray won audiences over with a twangy sound indebted to Poco, Pure Prairie League, and the countrified side of the Stones and the Byrds. They could play to pop and rock crowds too, and shared bills with Pat Benatar and George Thorogood & the Destroyers.
“We opened for Thorogood in Madison, Wisconsin,” says Bo. “We got done with our set, but Thorogood hadn’t gotten there yet. They asked us to play another set. We started, and through the front door comes George with a guitar in one hand and an amp in the other. We finished the song, the Destroyers got up onstage, plugged in, and killed. No sound check needed.”
During these years, Playboy magazine called Ouray one of the best unsigned bands in the United States (along with Cheap Trick). In 1978, though, they found a label, signing to the fledgling Taxi Records.
“Taxi Records was put together by Al Krockey and a group of investors,” Bo recalls. “He had been active in the record business, having started Good Records, and as owner of the Record Shack. He was extremely well-versed in distribution and put together a national distribution network similar to Arista and A&M at the time.”
Ouray made their debut album, 1978’s Chrome on the Range, at Gary Loizzo’s Pumpkin Studios in Oak Lawn. It was recorded by Ed Cherney, a former member of their road crew who’d landed a job at Chicago’s Paragon Studios and would go on to win Grammys for albums he produced for Bonnie Raitt, Willie Nelson, and Buddy Guy. The album blazes with hot southern-fried lead guitar, alongside subtler and more intricate folk-styled tunes laced with dreamy pedal steel and immaculate harmonies. Bo says it got a positive reception and good airplay: “Chrome on the Range was a Midwest Breakout in Billboard, when there was such a thing.”
Harriman and Rawlings left while Ouray were gigging to promote Chrome on the Range, so the band hired drummer Rick Barr and guitarist Jeff Perraud and kept going. This lineup appears on the 1981 LP Motor Dream, recorded at Shade Tree Resort Studio (in the Lake Geneva Playboy Club-Hotel, now the Grand Geneva Resort) and at Rainbow Bridge in Libertyville.
Motor Dream was a bit of a change of pace—though the songs were still tinged with biting pedal steel, Ouray had added some 80s new wave to the mix and adopted a glossier power-pop sound. The album included a few catchy pop nuggets that could’ve easily conquered the charts if properly promoted, but Taxi Records didn’t seem to have the means.
After failing to break out with their sophomore album, Ouray didn’t release another—but they never called it quits, only taking a hiatus or two over the past 40 years. In the current five-piece lineup, Frank and Bo are joined by Barr on drums, longtime collaborator John Forrest on bass, and a third Pirruccello brother, John, on guitar.
These days Barr also plays with garage legends the Shadows of Knight, and Harriman is a singer-songwriter in Aspen. Bo has played with Harriman in the band Milemarkers and backed singer Juelane Porter (formerly Fairbert). John Pirruccello is an in-demand session musician who’s toured or recorded with Alejandro Escovedo, Wilco offshoot the Autumn Defense, and Keith Richards; he’s also collaborated with Frank in a group called Yardsale. Forrest has played with Dennis Tufano and Carl Giammarese (both former Buckinghams singers) in the Tufano & Giammarese Band, as well as with new wavers the Odd.
Frank also maintains a law career, working mostly in music-adjacent areas. All three Pirruccello brothers own Lakland Guitars, a bass-guitar manufacturer in Chicago, as well as a company called Hanson that started out making pickups for Lakland and now builds its own instruments. Bo’s son Sam has an Americana-flavored indie-rock band called Dogs at Large, and coincidentally he lives about six blocks from my Ukrainian Village pad of 25 years.
Ouray don’t play out too often these days, even when there isn’t a pandemic, but they’re booked at SPACE in Evanston on Thursday, December 23. Go see these country-rock veterans while you can, y’hear?
The radio version of the Secret History of Chicago Music airs on Outside the Loop on WGN Radio 720 AM, Saturdays at 5 AM with host Mike Stephen. Past shows are archived here.