CHICAGO -- For fans of '70s country music, Carol's Pub in uptown Chicago will make you feel like you've stepped right back into the glory days of George Jones, Waylon Jennings and Merle Haggard. If Conway Twitty were there to personally greet you, he'd say, "Hello darlin', nice to see you. It's been a long tiiiime."
Yes, it certainly has been a long time. This nondescript building has been a "country and western" bar for 35 years, at least. Carol Harris, 49, has owned the place since her husband, Ted, died 14 years ago. He had run it since 1972. If you were to darken the doors on Thursday, Friday or Saturday nights now, you'd still hear a lot of country music from the 1970s with longtime band Diamondback gliding through classics by Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash, Ray Price, Tanya Tucker and Hank Williams.
"It just seems like there is no more live music in the city, at least country and western," Harris says. "There are very few places and it's always been country and western here. In fact, a long time ago, people said, 'Turn it into a disco bar or rock,' and we just stuck with country and western."
Two generations ago, it would be easy to imagine a bar like this in any town in America during a time when country establishments didn't cater to line dancing or demographics. For the thirty-something generation who grew up tagging along with their grandparents to the neighborhood tavern, the room is guaranteed to trigger nostalgia.
Yet in this crowd, you're just as likely to find a Mohawk as you are a trucker cap -- worn by a real trucker. Some folks are fashionable and some definitely aren't, but nobody seems to mind either way. Instead, everybody settles in for cheap beer and easygoing tunes. On a Friday night visit, we ordered a few pitchers of Miller Lite. They also have Old Style and a few other brands on draft. Nothing too fancy. There was a banner inside announcing the arrival of Beck's, but that import brew may be short-lived.
Asked if vendors have tried to sell high-end beers to the pub, Harris replies, "Yes, I have tried it, but it just doesn't go over here. They brought those fancy beers in here, and it's just not this bar. It doesn't fit in."
The manager, Jimmy, says he's been at Carol's for 33 years. The bouncer, bartenders and waitresses are friendly and efficient. The menu offers hamburgers, cheeseburgers, veal, fish, chicken, mushrooms, pizza puffs, onion rings, French fries and so on. Small sacks of potato chips are clipped to the wall behind the bar. Another country band, the Chicken Chokers, plays on Wednesday nights, plus there's karaoke on Monday nights (and $4 pitchers to boot).
More than a dozen neon beer signs line the walls, plus one in every window. Arcade games are planted at the front door. Cigarette smoke is a given. The bathrooms are impossible to miss, but there are three signs apiece for the men's and ladies room. The building itself is divided into three sections: a back room (with a pool table), the long bar (with a refrigerator stocked with empty, cold pitchers behind it) and, on the other side of the U-shaped bar, a wood-paneled room (with a stage in the corner and plenty of tables).
In front of the stage, there's a small table with a long strand of duct tape running up to the ceiling. If you want to request a song, stick a dollar bill on there and Diamondback will get around to it. The four members of the band, who have been together in this incarnation about 10 years by Harris' estimate, share vocal duties throughout the night. In between sets, they hit the bar like everybody else.
"I have a lot of regulars, but it's changed in the last five years," Harris says. "The neighborhood has changed. A different kind of people are moving in. It's pretty nice now. It's come a long ways. Back in the '70s and '80s -- oh, brother!" She laughs at the thought of it but doesn't get into details.
While she has considered other locations for Carol's Pub, she doubts she will ever leave the building behind.
"Really, I can't leave the place," she says. "It's part of me now. The people, I just know so many people. They just want to have a good time. They're not looking for trouble. They're just out to have a nice time. They're not rowdy or nothing like that."
Chicago is known for its abundance of neighborhood bars, and part of the charm is that neighborhood bars never seem to change. Part of it is because of the reliable "country and western" music. It's a description Nashville music executives try to avoid, but it suits this place perfectly. And there's more to it than that.
"It has a lot to do with the attitude of my help and myself," Harris believes. "We're just normal, regular people. ... I don't know how to say it. ... We're just real people. We've got our problems just like the next guy."
Carol's Pub is located at 4659 N. Clark St. in Chicago.