Sitting on a barstool, his hand wrapped around a $1 pint of Pabst Blue Ribbon, 23-year-old Tom Schraeder talks about Tom Schraeder & His Ego. That’s the eight-piece country-pop band he fronts that you’ve probably never heard of. “It’s strange,” Schraeder says. “You know all those steps that you’re supposed to take? Well, somehow, I just jumped them by accident and got lucky.”

By “lucky,” Schraeder means the roughly 20 gigs he played before booking the biggest date of his career: a set at last summer’s Lollapalooza, arguably the nation’s premier music festival. He’s also landed a showcase before talent scouts at New York’s CMJ festival in late October—all of this without a full-length album or a record deal, just a handful of songs on MySpace. “A few months ago, I applied to be a Chicago fireman, just in case,” he says. His day of reckoning is November 16th, when his first full-length album drops.

Schraeder didn’t even dream of being a musician as a kid; he wanted to be a music reporter like his Old Irving neighbor Jim DeRogatis, the Chicago Sun-Times music critic. “He let me tag along to concerts so I could see what the job was like,” recalls Schraeder, whose mother is a grammar school secretary and whose father works for Streets and Sanitation. “But when I got out of high school, and got into playing my own music, Jim stayed away” to avoid a conflict of interest. Indeed, DeRogatis says he “intentionally” kept his distance from the kid next door “until he had a show that was newsworthy.” That happened at Lollapalooza. “If he sucked, I would have written that he sucked,” says DeRogatis; instead, he says Schraeder was “really good” and wrote so on his blog.

Back at the bar, a friend teases Schraeder about his new Chuck Taylor sneakers, a gift from his parents, who couldn’t stand the sight of the duct-taped pair he wore onstage at Lollapalooza. Schraeder laughs: Money’s tight; his sneakers are the least of his worries. There’s no rock-star image to protect, not yet.

Photograph: Joe Wigdahl