“Hey man, you playin’ tonight?”
I give a scrawny pencil mustached smoker a once over. He’s going for a Freddie Mercury look or something so I thought it was a shoe-in. He answers only with a gesture, shaking is head from side to side. The door is scrawled with chalk listing the entertainment line-up for the next couple days – Hoyle Brothers taking up a fifth of the real estate. The awning wraps around the south-west corner and aside from its name, the words ‘Music’ and ‘Friendly’ face the west and ‘Dancing’ looks to the south. I’ve been shaving my head lately so the rain runs off the side of the building and onto my scalp as I walk in the front door.
She’s black in there. As my eyes adjust I trace the south wall where a collection of seven or eight nude photographs line themselves. Average people, plump and nonchalant, sprawling out on beds posing their everyday lounging for the camera. I like it – it leans towards tasteful. Opposite the nudes are two bartenders fully clothed. Both hip and rather attractive. Green hair is friendly as she smiles and her counterpart follows suite. The room is holding 20 or so post-work bodies, I imagine a handful have been there since noon. Ties, ballcaps, stringy hair, well dressed – a community that gathers outside of social status, the sure sign of a honky tonk. No cowboy hats. I’m comfortable enough at this point to change that.
I exit and return, where Freddie Mercury now requests my ID and stamps the image of an apple on my inside right wrist. Comfort level eight, this is good. I take another stab at guessing the band and approach a viciously bearded metalhead hanging by the Dig Dug/Centipede/Millipede three-in-one Atari arcade machine.
“Hey man, you playin’ tonight?”
“Nah man, I’m sound.”
My introduction is welcomed and he’s genuinely stoked that I’m a Canadian in the hunt of real country music. He ensures I came to the right place. The Hoyle Brothers have been playing every Friday night at The Empty Bottle for 15 years. True twang. Shuffle. Honky tonk and Classics. As the five-piece cracks into Ray Price’s ‘Invitation for the Blues’, my new sound-tech friend, Jeremy, introduces himself and points to a couple nodding their head at the corner of the bar. Pam and Ron Williams are travelling two-steppers – and Ron will talk your ear off. Sweethearts. Much like Jeremy, Freddie Mercury, and the two bartenders, Pam and Ron further support the bars decision to include the word ‘Friendly’ on the outside of the building.
I’m closest to Pam and she let’s me know that it isn’t the original Hoyle line-up but it is Steve Doyle on lead and Brian Wilkie on pedal steel. I’ve already made my mind up that I won’t find a better lead guitarist or steel player while I’m in Chicago. It just won’t happen. Pam’s planning out my next couple days.
“After this you can go to the Irish American Heritage Center for Hodie Snitch and then over to The Friendly Tap for Ethan Kinsella, he’s wonderful,” she continues “then tomorrow stop by Coles, that’s C-O-L-E-S for Dan Whitaker and off to the Honky Tonk BBQ to finish the night off, we won’t be there, Ron’s smoking meat tomorrow night”
“14 pounds” Ron chimes in.
He leaps from his chair and grabs Pam. There’s no way in hell they are going to sit through ‘My Heart Skips a Beat’. One, Two, Three, Five…One, Two, Three, Five…Fast, Fast, Slow, Slow.
I’m acquainting myself and the room is filling. Before long an early evening crowd is mix-matching themselves. Obvious long time partners. Confident invites. Unfortunate shut-downs. Green hair pulls a pretty dope move by bouncing a beer bottle off the freezer and into the waste. The Hoyles pay homage to the late Harlan Howard with a slow swing of ‘Busted’. I’m approached from the left.
With the hair transformation I’ve experienced over the last few years, it tends to be the first attribute I’m drawn towards in an introduction. His coiffure is impressive and demeanor, gentle. Word gets around quickly as he commends me on my mission. A young songwriter, the Ethan Kinsella suggested by Pam. He has a touch of a Dylan resemblance and converses as if we are old buddies. I’m already using slang that I would usually only use with Del, or Jonas, or Trav. I mentally commit to checking out The Friendly Tap following the next few Hoyle Brothers songs. Ethan has to leave to touch base with his boys and make a bit of a game plan before his load in a few miles away.
Brian Wilkie’s pedal steel tone is crisp. Emmons through a Peavey. I stumbled on a Chicago mainstay and am grateful for it. These boys refuse to compromise. The crowd is eating every lick that Steve Doyle puts out there and showing appreciation by packing the dance-floor. It’s the next best thing to Wood Mountain Rodeo in here. Buried deep in Chicago’s Ukrainian Village, real country is thriving.
The gold stencilled stars on the ceiling guide me to the washroom. In and Out. Follow the stars, past the thousands of stickers dating back to The Bottle’s opening in ’93. Goblin Cock. Snow Burial. Oozing Wound. Flameshovel Records. With 40+ indie releases under their belts, Flameshovel made the upstairs their headquarters.
I try to interrupt Pam and Ron’s dance-floor rhythm with a goodbye but have to settle by flashing a peace sign – nothing lost, I’ll see them later tonight. Thanking Jeremy for their introduction he lets me know that The Hideout is having their 20th anniversary bash tomorrow. Bands from noon until midnight. There’ll be everything but if I want country, Lawrence Peters is closing the night out. A can’t miss.
I get to the van, jot some notes. I bought a freeze-pack but haven’t had the opportunity to freeze it yet so the stow n’ go is my best option to keep things cool – namely “The Three Pounder”. Lettuce is starting to get a little soggy but the two minute power supper gives me my second wind. Sparing data, I get a mental picture of my route to The Friendly Tap. Windows down, post-rain brings a smell to this part of the city that sits on my tongue. I round the south-west corner of The Empty Bottle and as Freddie Mercury pops out for another cigarette I get a final Wilkie/Doyle harmony line.