Chicago’s musical roots run as deep as Lake Michigan. Beginning in 1924, the National Barn Dance, a country-themed radio program that predated the Grand Ole Opry, was broadcast on WLS from the Eighth Street Theater in Chicago. In the ’60s, the folk community rallied around the upstart Old Town School of Folk Music, a sort of Second City analogue to New York’s Greenwich Village scene. The Old Town School helped shape the artistry of rising stars like John Prine, Steve Goodman and The Byrds’ Roger McGuinn. But today, Chicago’s music scene is equally informed by the post-rock experimentalism of bands like Tortoise and Wilco. Here are five contemporary Chicago songwriters you need to hear.
SAD BRAD SMITH
Chicago songwriter Sad Brad Smith caught a huge break when film director Jason Reitman featured his song “Help Yourself” in the 2009 George Clooney film Up In The Air. Aside from that windfall, Smith has kept a relatively low profile, self-releasing Love Is Not What You Need in 2010. Now Smith is back with a new album, Magic, slated for release in April. Here’s an early taste with the track “Sit Around,” a buoyant number that seems readymade for film placement. (Michel Gondry: We hope you’re reading this.)
Matt Campbell is a throwback to the National Barn Dance era, and puts a sly entertainer’s touch back into Chicago folk music. Originally from Colorado and now a Nashville transplant, Campbell started his own folk night in Chicago, which he dubbed “Gospel on the Radio” (after one of his songs). At a dingy North Side bar, you could hear Campbell and friends play early country gems and some of their own. A new album, No Tattoos, collects songs that Campbell previously issued as digital singles via his Chicago Talking Machine Company (a nod to Victor). “Corners Of My Heart” finds Campbell (where else?) at the bar, with a classic case of country heartache: “I’m hiding in the corner booth each night that we’re apart/ ’Cause there ain’t no escaping the corners of my heart.”
Michele McGuire hails from Chicago’s South Side, but she can trace her folk-music lineage all the way to the Emerald Isle (her mother was born in Ireland). McGuire doesn’t trade in Irish folk tunes, but there’s something of the communal pub spirit in her catchy songs. Her arrangements are more aligned with the ’70s country-rock of Emmylou Harris and Linda Ronstadt as well as Nashville singer-songwriters like Caitlin Rose and Ashley Monroe. Like those contemporary artists, McGuire is a smart songwriter who knows how to craft an affecting hook. A new EP, Off The Wagon, has the garage-y stomp of Shovels & Rope, but the title track adds a pop-country chorus that could easily have come from a Nashville co-writing session.
RYAN JOSEPH ANDERSON
Ryan Joseph Anderson was the former frontman for the beloved Chicago garage-rock band Go Long Mule, which released two albums—2011’s Kissing The Gunner’s Daughter and 2013’s Albion—and carved out a touring niche in the Midwest before disbanding this winter. To record a new solo album, Anderson decamped to Nashville to collaborate with Andrija Tokic at the Bomb Shelter studio. On Weaver’s Broom, Anderson displays his lyrical songwriting gifts in stripped-down settings. The new album evokes the open-tunings of Nick Drake as well as the barroom howl of Tom Waits. A new stop-motion video for “Fortune And Fate,” created by Anderson and artist Jen Donahue (who also sings on the album), is a morbid love song à la “Long Black Veil.”
MARTIN VAN RUIN
Fans looking for Chicago’s next Wilco might like to check out Martin Van Ruin and its debut album, Every Man A King. The medieval-sounding moniker is actually the new project from songwriter Derek Nelson along with members of his previous backing band, The Musicians, and the Americana outfit Jenny Dragon. The album was co-produced and engineered by Neil Strauch, who has worked with Bonnie “Prince” Billy, Iron And Wine and Andrew Bird. The band took over Chicago’s new Lower West Side music venue, Thalia Hall, to record this live video for “Gold And Love And Gin,” a song from the album.