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Uptown’s hillbilly past lives on at Carol’s Pub

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Updated: November 22, 2012 6:06AM



With hopes of fame and fortune now a dusty jewel, Diamondback kicks into “I Feel Lucky” on a Saturday night at Carol’s Pub in Uptown.

The country-western band plays seven sets from 9 p.m. until 4 a.m. Friday and Saturday night (eight sets on Saturday).

The groups prefer real country like Johnny Cash and Merle Haggard, the soundtrack of the 1950s and ’60s hillbilly migration to the promised land of Uptown. But on this fickle early autumn night, Diamondback vocalist-rhythm guitarist Reva Goodman’s sweet delivery of the 1992 Mary Chapin Carpenter hit ignites a country line dance.

Just like the neighborhood, Diamondback has changed with the times.

Carol’s Pub, 4659 N. Clark, is celebrating its 40th anniversary this fall.

It is the last honky-tonk in Chicago.

It will never be confused with Toby Keith’s I Love This Bar & Grill in Rosemont or Joe’s on Weed Street.

For starters, Carol’s opens at 9 a.m. Monday and Tuesdays and 11 a.m. the rest of the week. The bar has a 4 a.m. license tipping over to 5 a.m. on Saturdays.

The industrial brick facade advertises pool and darts. Dollar bills are taped to a rickety pole, a.k.a. “The Tip Tree” in front of the stage. The bar holds about 250 people, including seats for 50 along a narrow bar where eyes stare into the night like markers on a row of dominos.

On this night, 70-year-old doorman Jimmy Curry sees a coyote dart into the park across the street. You know this is true because the Kentucky native has been at Carol’s for all of its 40 years. He has seen everything from rats to gunslingers. He is a straight shooter.

Diamondback bandleader-bassist Mike McKeehan is originally from southeastern Kentucky. His mother was from a mining camp in Kayjay, Ky. McKeehan lives in Cincinnati, where he has “other business concerns.” Just about every weekend McKeehan drives his maroon 1997 Buick Park Avenue with 230,000 miles from Cincinnati to Uptown and back.

That’s Southern dedication.

“This neighborhood was all about jobs,” says McKeehan, who lived in Chicago between the mid-1970s and mid-1990s. “My dad went through World War II, came back and wasn’t going to work in a coal mine. He had seen other things. He was going to get a factory job. The ’billies came to Chicago. The reason they ended up in Uptown is how they split up big old houses and apartment buildings into smaller apartments. Guys would share an apartment and send the money home like Latin American immigrants do now. Uptown got a reputation for being an Appalachian-friendly neighborhood.

“It was all about getting out of coal mines, getting out of poverty.”

The ’billies flexed their hardworking muscle at dozens of Uptown honky-tonks.

Sharon’s Hillbilly Heaven was across the street from the Aragon Ballroom, and its wall paneling featured embedded depictions of pine trees, deers and pheasants. Bartenders wore gym whistles to keep law and order. The Lakeview Lounge was at 5110 N. Broadway, a dimly lit outpost for the hillbilly migration that had settled on Argyle Street.

These places are gone.

And Carol’s plays on.

†††

Carol Hirtzig was a Taft High School student in 1970 when she took on the 4-10 p.m shift at an Uptown restaurant.

The daughter of a City of Chicago electrician, Carol did her homework on the 90-minute rush hour bus ride from the school at 6530 W. Bryn Mawr.

“I was a waitress at Johnny’s, a hillbillly restaurant at Leland and Sheridan,” Carol recalls. “Ted Harris was a customer. He was a good tipper (laughs). He was working in heating and air conditioning for Standard Oil. He bought this bar in 1971 for $1,500. It was a country-western place called Pam’s Playhouse. It had been closed for a year and a day. He didn’t get to open until 1972. This whole neighborhood was Southern and this was always country-western. Waylon Jennings played here in the 1950s.”

Jennings had a 1973 hit with “Honky Tonk Heroes.”

Carol and Ted Harris were married in 1973.

Ted Harris was from Fort Payne, Ala., a town built on broken promises of iron and coal deposits. At the age of 18 Harris left Fort Payne — the home of the country band Alabama — and came to Chicago looking for work. And he worked hard.

Harris died of a heart attack in 1993. He was just 56 years old.

Carol’s Pub is pretty much the way it was when Ted opened it in 1972. Carol and Ted did add the kitchen, which serves cheeseburgers, chicken patties, fried mushrooms, tuna salad and other items until 2 a.m. Up until a year ago Hirtzig cooked a complementary Thanksgiving and Christmas buffet with turkey and all side dishes for her regulars.

Why didn’t the pub become Ted’s Pub?

“That’s a long story,” Carol says with a laugh. “My [future] husband was married. His wife’s name was Pam. She was the manager. When we got married there were a lot of fights here. The insurance company wouldn’t insure Pam’s Playhouse. So he changed the name to Carol’s Pub. In the ’70s we averaged five or six fights a night. Up until the 1980s it was all Southern people. Now I have doctors, lawyers, cops.

“About six or seven years ago Jennifer Aniston and Vince Vaughn were here. [Curry carded Vaughn.] They had their limo outside and had security in here. And they got really drunk. Jennifer had to be carried out of this place. Vince Vaughn picked up a bar stool and was singing into the bar stool on the dance floor. It was a Monday night so there was no live music. It was just the [computerized] jukebox.”

Monday night specials at Carol’s include $5 pitchers and domestic beers for $2.

In the early 1990s beer distributors tried to talk Ted into making Carol’s Pub a disco. “Ted said it was always country and western and he was going to leave it country and western,” says Carol, a fan of Cash and Haggard. “But the 1990s were hard for us.”

†††

A life at Carol’s has been even harder for doorman-bartender Jimmy Curry.

He began working as a bartender at Pam’s Playhouse. He knows Uptown on the down-low.

Curry is from the coal-mining mecca of Harlan County, Ky. He migrated to Chicago in the late 1950s looking for work. “They called this neighborhood ‘Hillbilly Heaven,’ where people from the South knew somebody or they had family,” Curry says before his Thursday shift. “It got to be a slum neighborhood and all the working people moved out. Later on the Yuppies came in, and that stopped the skid.”

Curry is of slender build, and at 5-foot-5 he hardly looks like a doorman.

On a recent Saturday night he is at the door with a much larger security guy nearby. Curry is so much about protection, he keeps two pens in his shirt pocket protector, just in case.

Curry has been seriously shot twice in Carol’s line of duty.

Carol nods to the front door and says, “Jimmy was shot in that doorway. In the 1970s he was carding one guy who passed the ID to another guy. Jimmy said, ‘You can’t do that,’ and the guy shot him. In the early 1980s he was also shot at the Golden Nugget [since razed], at Bryn Mawr and Broadway. They beat up my bouncer outside. Jimmy went out, trying to get the guy off my bouncer. The police came and closed the place down. We all went to breakfast and these guys followed us. When Jimmy walked out of the restaurant they shot him — the same guys that were fighting outside here.”

The shooting took place near the old Edgewater Hospital, where surgeons saved Curry’s life.

Under a raspy Southern drawl Curry says, “I told the guy, ‘You win, man. I got no gun on me.’ I turned around to leave the restaurant and he shot me in the back. I was lucky. The doctor on duty at the hospital specialized in gunshot wounds. I was in the hospital a couple of months. The other time I got shot right in the stomach.”

And he points to a spot above the shiny gold buckle in his Western belt.

“I went to the same hospital both times,” he says.

Curry had two sisters who lived in Uptown, which is why he came to the neighborhood. “Before this I worked in factories and construction,” Curry says. “When I started here it was all Southerners. They paid the rent, bought the groceries and then drank the rest of it up. Now it’s mostly young people. Five or six of them will have a couple pitchers of beer. They don’t drink that heavy.”

Curry works the door and behind the bar Thursday through Sunday nights. Carol’s has a $5 cover after 10 p.m. on Friday and Saturdays.

“This was a tough place,” Carol says. “I don’t know if I should tell you this, but I was 16 years old and working here. Every time there was a fight, the police would come and I would go in the bathroom and lock the door. After the police left, someone would knock on the door and I would go back bartending.”

†††

With his salt-and-pepper goatee and straight-ahead eyes, Diamondback bandleader-bassist Mike McKeehan looks like a young Johnny Paycheck.

The first version of Diamondback came on the Carol’s scene in the late 1970s. Diamondback knows thousands of songs. McKeehan says the biggest payoff in terms of a tip was a $100 bill they got for resurrecting the 1969 Marty Robbins tune “You Gave Me a Mountain.”

“There’s always been a house band here,” Mc­Kee­han says. “Parts get replaced as time goes on.”

On this Saturday night Diamondback consists of McKeehan, Goodman, guitarist Lee Borak and drummer Country Claude, who has played with non-country Styx and Survivor (circa 2003).

“People these days request Johnny Cash, [The Osborne Brothers’] ‘Rocky Top,’ ” Goodman says. “Some ask for new stuff like Jason Aldean, but we try not to follow the charts because no one may remember it tomorrow.” Borak, who sings a soulful version of John Fogerty’s “Lodi,” says, “If there’s a contemporary song we like, we do it. We gave up on trying to follow top 40 country.”

Goodman and sometime Diamondback bassist Chuck Hart had been in a band called Long Haul Road Show between 1982 and 1999. “There were a million country places to play,” Goodman says. “Critters, Nashville North ...”

McKeehan adds, “Frankie’s out in Willow Springs, Carl’s Regina, the Fifth Wheel, OB’s in Stone Park ...”

But the current Diamondback never played together until they landed at the port of Carol’s.

“Country music was healthy in this city until the first urban cowboy phenomenon hit in the late ’70s and early ’80s,” McKeehan says. “People didn’t give a rat’s ass about country until they saw John Travolta and Debra Winger in a movie. All these country places popped up. And within two years they were all out of business. Then the second urban cowboy wave came in the early ’90s with places like Whiskey River on North Clybourn. The overhead killed them, too.

“This place survived because they kept it country. And they keep it open. If Christmas Eve falls on a Saturday night we play. If there’s eight feet of snow outside we play. In the 25 on-and-off years of playing here I can remember not playing twice. Twenty years ago this was a neighborhood bar. Now we’re a tourist bar like Kingston Mines. We get people who come in off of [party] trolleys, people from Europe.”

Goodman says, “Now you go on the Internet to find real country music in Chicago, this is the only place you’re going to find.”

Carol’s Pub is a diamond in the rough. Chicago history lives in the dust.



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