Backstage with Ron Onesti:
Cool Man Luke
I didn’t grow up a country music fan. Being from the “big city” of Chicago, the only country I was subjected to was “Hee Haw’s” Roy Clark and Buck Owens, “The Beverly Hillbillies’ ” Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs and the country music segments of the Mandrell Sisters that Lawrence Welk would feature once in a while. It was called “country western” back then, and it was still that twangy, ten-gallon-hat wearing, John Wayne movie style of music that really wasn’t a form of music at all for me. It was more of a character trait — one my ’70s rock music style didn’t jive with very well.
But of course, Clint Eastwood’s “Dirty Harry,” although country in style, was an accepted “rock ‘n’ roll” bad guy. Even the hardest of rockers had his poster in their rooms (next to the Farrah Fawcett poster that nobody today would admit to have had hanging on his closet door).
Then came Dolly Parton and Kenny Rogers. They were a pretty big deal, all over television, radio and the movies. That brought me to an appreciation for country music I never thought I would have. It was fun and a big part of the culture of the ’80s. Dolly’s “Nine To Five” and Kenny’s “The Gambler” were game changers for country music, and the emerging country music rage was about to ensue.
Then, as my career in live music began to take shape, I started to put on shows with young, up-and-comers named Billy Ray Cyrus, Brad Paisley, Toby Keith and a few others. Alabama and Diamond Rio came out, and the genre exploded!
I was producing concerts at Hawthorne Park Race Course and my biggest shows were country (except for a Halloween show with Alice Cooper). Classic rock was just becoming “classic,” so those shows weren’t as well attended then.
Then Garth Brooks came out, and things would never be the same. Country music radio was huge. As a matter of fact, Chicago’s US99 country music radio station was bigger than any radio station in Nashville or Texas!
I was recently at a conference of concert promoters in Nashville, and a Hall of Fame inductee was Garth himself. Through a series of “being at the right place at the right time” circumstances, I found myself face-to-face with Garth, talking about country music, Chicago and my theater, The Arcada.
“Man, it is so cool that you saved that place,” he said. “It’s like when I play The Ryman (Auditorium in Nashville). To think that historical place almost closed was really sickening.”
So I proceeded to suggest he stop by The Arcada the next time he was in Chicago, to which he replied, “Ya never know!”
I’m taking that as a for sure “Yes.”
This past week, a prominent charity held a fundraiser at The Arcada. The show starred the biggest name in country music today, Luke Bryan. Here is a guy who can sell out 30,000-seat arenas in an hour, playing acoustically in my 900-seat theater. Incredible!
He walked in, a big guy, with a big personality and a big smile to match. The baseball hat has taken the place of the cowboy hat in country music these days. But the twang is the same as ever.
He performed for what seemed to be three hours of his hits and radio cover tunes, including some dance hits you would hear on a contemporary pop station. It was a party from start to finish, giving his audience another reason for so many to worship this guy.
After his show, he came upstairs to our new speak-easy and showroom, Club Arcada. His jaw dropped and he said, “This place makes me want to choke down a big cee-gar.”
As I am watching this guy, and really taking note of his humility and sincere appreciation for his fans, I am remembering those classic entertainers of the Patsy Cline era. They represented a wholesomeness that still prevails in country music. It’s a taste of Americana at its best, that “baseball, hot dogs, apple pie and Chevrolet” ad of decades gone by. It was nice to see that same wholesomeness represented by this huge star.
From Will Rogers to Roy Rogers to Kenny Rogers, they should all be proud of the legacy being carried on by this big guy named “Luke.”
• Ron Onesti is president and CEO of The Onesti Entertainment Corp. and The Historic Arcada Theatre in St. Charles. Celebrity questions and comments? Email firstname.lastname@example.org.