Chris Ligon has a 40-year method of writing songs: He hits chords on the piano while meditating, waiting for images to appear.
“What does it conjure up in my mind? That’s the way I do it — just instinct,” he says.
Miss America, his fourth studio album out this month, confirms that Ligon is Chicago’s best songwriter who many people don’t yet know. Unlike his younger brother Scott Ligon, a touring multi-instrumentalist who plays with local pop supergroup the Flat Five, Chris is apprehensive about performing in public. The older Ligon prefers quietly working in the shadows, self-releasing music and rarely performing live. But his songs are cherished by a musical underground that sees him as Chicago’s answer to Harry Nilsson.
“Chris’s songs have buoyancy,” says Flat Five singer Kelly Hogan. “At their core, they’re incredibly sophisticated musically. There’s a hopeful innocence to them, somehow.”
But even that hopeful innocence can’t obscure that the last 12 months were a test for Ligon. Last year, he grieved the death of his mother. Then he had surgery to remove kidney stones. After that, his wife, artist and filmmaker Heather McAdams, was diagnosed with skin cancer, followed by a skin cancer diagnosis of his own. Both went through surgery and their cancer is in remission.
Throughout, Ligon escaped to his basement, where he wrote most of Miss America on an electric piano. For years, he committed ideas to a Sony reel-to-reel tape machine. Now, his setup is digital but similarly minimal — just a microphone, mixer, and computer. Because of his solitary process, he considers what he does more “folk art” than songwriting in the traditional sense.
“It’s piecing things together with whatever equipment you have in front of you. Being limited allows you to go somewhere where you wouldn’t have necessarily gone with these big soundboards and their 18 channels,” he says. “Being forced to do something in a smaller way gives you little freedom.”
Ligon, 60, grew up in downstate Quincy and then outside Peoria. His parents were musical and owned a deep record collection, but he was not musically trained, leaving him to develop his own process. At 19, he started recording his own songs and distributing them on cassettes to friends and family. Before he started recording for the general public, he had amassed ten privately distributed song collections.
The idiosyncrasies in Ligon’s music — the twang in his voice, the tunefulness, the humor, the childlike wonder and glimpses of sadness — are what have made his two-minute songs so beloved since Ligon moved here from Peoria in 1991. In 2016, the Flat Five (whose musicians also play with Neko Case, Mavis Staples, NRBQ, and the Decemberists, among others) recorded It’s a World of Love and Hope, an entire album of Ligon’s songs, with a follow-up due next year on Bloodshot Records. Their collaboration continues on November 8, when the Flat Five joins Ligon at FitzGerald’s in Berwyn to launch Miss America.
The other half of Ligon’s creative world is his marriage to McAdams, whom he met the first week he landed in Chicago. Their longest-running collaboration is the annual country calendar variety show at FitzGerald’s; now in its 22nd year, the show celebrates McAdams’s illustrated calendar of outsider country and pop stars. The couple also avidly collects vintage 16 mm film: Cannisters wall the basement of their West Rogers Park home, including everything from commercials, movie trailers, and cartoons to clips of people like Sonny James or Hank Snow performing on long-forgotten televised variety shows.
Ligon considers 16 mm a sublime portal to the past. “The best way to see George Jones in person is not television. There’s something living about light going through an original negative,” he says. “Seeing film is the closest thing we ever have to seeing the person in person.”
In 1997, when the couple opened Record Roundup, a storefront memorabilia store in Lincoln Square, they regularly hosted screenings of their collection alongside performances by people like Neko Case, Robbie Fulks, and the Handsome Family. The Miss America release party at FitzGerald’s will also include film interludes, complementing Ligon’s grim yet irreverent songs.
Not surprisingly, mortality emerges as a major theme on Miss America. One of the most upbeat songs, “Polio Man,” is quintessential Ligon: a singalong pop number about a disease that cripples children. Yet Ligon’s experience getting the polio vaccine is sweetened by his memory of the sugar cubes nurses handed out after the shot.
“The starting point was how happy I was to have that sugar cube in my mouth 55 years ago,” he said.
That perspective is what makes Miss America so charming — and powerful. On “Chicken Truck,” a hushed guitar ballad, a food processing plant becomes a place that separates families in cages. “Someone’s making wages / stacking tiny cages / he don’t even seem to care,” Ligon sings. “That’s somebody’s baby / someone’s tiny baby / soon will live his life in there.”
On the album, Ligon covers every vocal and instrumental part. It’s just as well: For him, every note is personal. “The record is for me, first and foremost,” Ligon says.
With Friday’s show around the corner, Ligon is clocking more solo time in the basement. There, he’s kept busy rehearsing songs, “looking at old notes and listening to tapes.”
“I enjoy it,” he says. “But boy, can I get apprehensive.”
Chris Ligon and the Flat Five perform Friday, November 8 at FitzGerald’s. The Chris Ligon and Heather McAdams country calendar show is December 7, also at FitzGerald’s. Miss America is available via bloodshotrecords.com and Laurie’s Planet of Sound in Lincoln Square.