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Chicago Country Music Festival 

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Saturday, June 26

TASTE STAGE

1:15 PM Ana Egge

Austin singer-songwriter Egge reveals her folkie heart on her new solo acoustic album, Mile Marker (Grace), but when she's surrounded by a slew of Austin country types, as she was on her 1997 debut, River Under the Road, her elegant melodies and keen storytelling translate easily into twang. She performs solo here.

2:30 PM Anna Fermin's Trigger Gospel

With her recently released Things to Come (Sighlow)--produced by Austin mainstay and Dixie Chick dad Lloyd Maines--Fermin proves that she has more mainstream potential than any local country rocker save Robbie Fulks. She also happens to be real good, with a husky alto that puts an appealing shine on her consistently improving songwriting.

3:45 PM Meat Purveyors

This Austin foursome, part of the local Bloodshot label's roster, likes its bluegrass stripped-down and hopped-up. The group's 1998 debut, Sweet in the Pants, was driven by lightning-fast instrumental runs--particularly from the blazing mandolin of Pete Stiles--and choice covers that ranged from Glass Eye's "Dimsey Naish" to Ray Price's "I'll Be There." The group's forthcoming More Songs About Buildings and Cows doesn't alter the formula much--the covers are Bill Monroe's "Can't You Hear Me Callin'" and Daniel Johnston's "Museum of Love"--but sounds more relaxed than its predecessor. As infectious as the exuberantly ragged singing of Jo Walston and bassist Cherilyn diMond can be, it's often the weak link--great bluegrass requires a bit more soul than these amiable front-porch pals have been able to muster.

5:00 PM Heather Myles

The must-see of the festival: Myles's Highways & Honky Tonks (Rounder) was the finest slice of straight-up Bakersfield-style honky-tonk I heard last year. The California native had issued a few passable albums earlier in the decade, but she arrived with this one, singing in an effortless, soul-fueled twang in front of a crack band. Her songs take on familiar themes without ever sounding formulaic, from the working life ("Playin' Every Honky Tonk in Town") to cheatin' ("Who Did You Call Darlin'") to carpe diem romance (her smooth duet with Merle Haggard, "No One Is Gonna Love You Better"). If nothing else, her "Mr. Lonesome" ought to become an anthem for unaccompanied women sick of being hassled by creeps at bars: "Mr. Lonesome, go cheer up somebody else / Ain't got nobody / But I can do it better by myself."

6:30 PM Kelly Willis

Austinite Willis has earned more critical acclaim and more new fans with her first non-Nashville album, What I Deserve (Rykodisc), than with all three of her previous efforts for country behemoth MCA combined. It's not radically different--literate, heartfelt country rock fueled by pretty, sophisticated melodies--but she finally recorded music for a label smart enough to realize there are a lot of country fans who don't shop at Wal-Mart and go line dancing every weekend.

PETRILLO MUSIC SHELL

6:00 PM Susan Ashton

Competent, entertaining retrobillies BR5-49 were originally slated here, but they opted to open for current tourmate Brian Setzer at Taste of Chicago on July 5 instead. In their place the city's booked US99 automaton Susan Ashton. The former Christian pop singer's current single, "Faith of the Heart," written by Titanic hit factory Diane Warren, is a bombastic slice of suburban soft rock that straddles the secular/spiritual divide for greater marketability--and I for one would rather be in one of those Porta Pottis than in front of the speakers when it's blaring across Grant Park.

7:00 PM George Jones

The Possum's brand-new Cold Hard Truth (Asylum) is a lot more like his classic work than the bulk of the crap collected on MCA's recent retrospective, The George Jones Collection. Although his voice sounded great throughout the 90s, the hit-hungry honchos at MCA had him singing about Post-it notes, Geritol, hip-hop, and rubber walls under depressingly antiseptic production. Even the mainstream country audience, hardly a discriminating lot, knew it was bad: Jones scored only three top-40 hits during his seven-album stay at the label. "Choices," the first single off the new album, has already gone to 37. Cold Hard Truth was cut before Jones's near-fatal vodka-cell phone-SUV accident earlier this year, so the single's lyrics are poignant, to say the least: "By an early age I found / I liked drinking / Oh, and I never turned it down," he sings, and then, "Now I'm living and dying / With the choices I've made." He also takes on the hypocrisy of the church ("The only thing different in sinners and saints / One is forgiven and the other one ain't," from "Sinners & Saints") and strings together silly metaphors that hark back to 60s goofs like "Party Pickin'" ("A twister tore the roof off a grocery store / Blew an Idaho potato through the hardwood floor / Twirled granny's apron up around her head / The cat's gone missing and the dog is dead / Well, ain't love a lot like that," from "Ain't Love a Lot Like That"). Gone is the embarrassing topicality; back are the universal subjects that give country music lasting appeal. And while the production is definitely radio ready, it's about as restrained and tasteful as a mainstream country album can be these days. Jones's live shows over the last few decades have been performed on autopilot, and this one probably won't be much different. But at least his peerless voice has finally met a worthy batch of songs.

Sunday, June 27

TASTE STAGE

12:30 PM Easy Louise

Suburban line-dance faves whose members boast "close to 100 combined years of professional experience in the music business." Wow, they're just a few decades behind the Rolling Stones.

1:45 PM Lindsey Sharer & Blackjack

The bio this combo provided the city doesn't say much about its music. Lead guitarist Dave Cunico, a former rocker, apparently "puts that edgy feel into the new age country songs," and Sharer "provides the lead female vocals in the band as well as background vocals," although, one would assume, not simultaneously.

3:00 PM Kellett Konnection

Fronted by brothers Travis and Scott Kellett, this band has been performing top-40 country hits and country oldies for 15 years.

4:15 PM Crossfyre

An outfit whose experience is mostly confined to opening for hat acts and banging out background for suburban beer consumption.

5:30 PM Mandy Barnett

With her gorgeous second album, I've Got a Right to Cry (Sire), Barnett transforms the anachronistic 60s pop-country style into a breath of fresh air. With the help of producer Owen Bradley, a pioneer of the Nashville Sound who died during the sessions, she at once recalls and transcends Bradley's most famous client, Patsy Cline. And she's only 23--imagine how good she'll be when she grows up.

6:45 PM Robbie Fulks

Last year Fulks proved that country was but one feather in his richly plumed cap, showcasing his snappy pop sensibility on the superb Let's Kill Saturday Night (Geffen). Unfortunately, some of his fans could only scratch their heads and wonder what happened to the twang. He'll probably put it back in for this gig, but the reason he can is that a good song is a good song in any style, and good songs are what Fulks writes by the dozen. And he could charm the skirt off a schoolteacher with his stage presence.

PETRILLO MUSIC SHELL

3:00 PM Deana Carter

Carter followed her quadruple-platinum debut album, Did I Shave My Legs For This? (Capitol), with last year's bromidically titled Everything's Gonna Be Alright. Although it contains pretty much the same mix of glossy honky-tonk, soft-rock ballads, and suburban sentimentality as the first one (plus a specious cover of Melanie's "Brand New Key"), it peaked at a disappointing number six on Billboard's country chart and has spent most of its life in the lower reaches. Carter sounds smart next to most of what makes it onto country radio, but against the competition here she'll look like the sap she is.

4:15 PM Dwight Yoakam

Even as mainstream country has congealed into one big wax Garth sculpture, Yoakam has continued to score hits while twisting the style like a ball of Silly Putty. In the 80s he was the music's tradition-minded conscience, but the recent Last Chance for a Thousand Years: Dwight Yoakam's Greatest Hits From the 90's (Reprise) emphasizes the chances he's taken: mixed in with his usual crisp, post-Bakersfield honky-tonk are the mod western swing of "Pocket of a Clown," the "Ring of Fire" mariachi horns of "Sorry You Asked," the blue-eyed soul of "Nothing," and even the successful revivification of Queen's kitschy rockabilly hit "Crazy Little Thing Called Love." On record he's the decade's most consistently interesting country artist, and live he's capable of distilling his quirks into a singular crowd-pleasing package.

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

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