Dave Hoekstra of the Sun-Times reports that Donald Clinton Walls, Sr., front man of the great Chicago country bar band the Sundowners, died Tuesday at 80. Hoekstra’s a good person to write his obit, having done the liner notes to the Sundowners anthology on Bloodshot Records, which featured the band on its first release, the insurgent-country sampler For A Life of Sin. The Sundowners are the only older band on the album, mixed in with contemporaries like Robbie Fulks, the Handsome Family, and Freakwater; Hoekstra calls them “the patron saints of Chicago’s insurgent country movement.”
Walls’s death is sad for me because the links to Appalachian Chicago (Walls, the son of a coal miner, came to Chicago from the tiny speck of Rita, West Virginia) are few. As the Waco Brothers’ Jon Langford put it:
They held court in several downtown Chicago honky tonks from 1959 to 1989 and provide a direct, important historical road map of Country’s Northward wanderings–away from the mountains and plains and hollers and towards the factories and jobs.
Influenced by groups like the Sons of the Pioneers, the Sundowners sang harmony as if they were family. But they often updated traditional cowboy harmonies by reworking Appalachian, Tin Pan Alley and traditional western melodies for an urban audience.
For example, here they are covering the Beatles’ “Something":
It’s gentlemanly mid-century country with a bit of rockabilly punch, a genre they were also skilled at, as they bridged the gap from the old, weird country of Appalachia and the South and the new, weird country of the contemporary Midwest. Here’s how Hoekstra described one of their last shows, in a piece written after bassist Curt Delaney died:
One of the band’s final club appearances here was the 1993 Sundowners Jubilee held at Bub City on the Near North Side. The club was standing room-only with fans of every age and color dressed in expensive suits, faded blue jeans and cowboy hats. Punkers stood next to grandparents.
Delaney looked around the room with a satisfied smile. “I never thought it would all come to this,” he said. “You know, seeing all these familiar faces together who saw us at the ranch over the years is truly a wonderful thing.”
If you want to catch up on Chicago alt-country, For a Life of Sin is a good start, but here’s what I’d recommend.
1. The Bottle Rockets, “Thousand Dollar Car” Brian Henneman’s song about his 1977 Chrysler New Yorker. I mean, it rocks, but part of why I love it is how concisely it explains important economic concepts: “A thousand-dollar car / it ain’t gonna roll / until you throw at least another thousand in the hole / sink your money in it, and there you are / the proud owner of a two thousand-dollar thousand-dollar car.”
2. Waco Brothers, “Napa Valley” Their tribute to inexpensive domestic wine: “Ripened in the sun / hanging on a vine / crushed like stupid dreams to make cheap wine.”
3. Freakwater, “Good For Nothing” “The dirt beneath my nails / is not from some field of flowers.”
4. Freakwater, “War Pigs” A fantastic cover.
5. The Handsome Family, “So Much Wine” Sort of a sequel to “Napa Valley,” if you think about it. “There’s only so much wine / in one life / but it will never be enough / to save you from / the bottom of your glass.”
6. Robbie Fulks, “Let’s Kill Saturday Night” Kind of a country Bruce Springsteen song.
7. Freakwater, “Lullabye” Catherine Irwin and Janet Bean have two of my favorite voices in alt-country.
8. Neko Case, “Thrice All American” Yes, it’s about Tacoma; yes, it was recorded before her stint in Chicago, but it’s one of my favorite songs, so you should listen to it.
9. Waco Brothers, “Fox River” A big raveup about a small river.
10. Robbie Fulks, “Cigarette State” Hey, Asheville, that’s where I was born.