Chris Ligon and Heather McAdams’ annual country calendar shows are a holiday-season staple in Chicago, a multimedia event that in its all-encompassing quirkiness embodies what the city’s indie music and art scenes are about.
Though there are films, live performances and an air of unpredictability that make the event a must-see, at the heart of it is McAdams’ country calendar, which is, among other things, a celebration of trivia. For example:
What ’60s pop vocal group played with Frank Zappa and also sang back-up on both T. Rex’s “Get it On” and Bruce Springsteen’s “Hungry Heart”? Who said the following while listening to new country radio: “The worst thing about this song is that it’s going to be followed by another one just like it”? What one-hit wonder from the ’50s had a song that appeared on both “The American Graffiti” soundtrack and a ubiquitous TV ad for a hair-removal product?
The answers are supplied within McAdams’ hand-illustrated annual celebration of the year ahead and the long-ago music that led up to it. The nationally renowned artist’s 2018 edition veers a touch from the all-country beginnings of the calendar a quarter-century ago. It’s titled “Heather’s L’il Folk, Rock, Pop and Country Calendar,” because it includes outliers such as Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, Diana Lee with the Royal Teens and Mel Torme in addition to Grand Ol’ Opry favorite Ray Price.
“How many times can you draw Hank Williams?” McAdams says, before explaining that the calendar’s content is dictated as much by the rare 16-mm films she can acquire as it is by personal taste. The films are a centerpiece of the couple’s country calendar show, which marks its 20th anniversary Dec. 9 at FitzGeralds.
As McAdams’ husband and collaborator, Ligon puts together the lineup charged with covering the songs of the calendar artists. This year’s performers include the Flat Five, a local all-star combo with Ligon’s younger brother, Scott Ligon; Devil in the Woodpile; and Jane Baxter Miller and Kent Kessler, among others.
The Flat Five, who will cover a song by the Turtles, are among Chris Ligon’s biggest fans. The group’s 2016 debut album, “It’s a World of Love and Hope” (Bloodshot), consists entirely of the musician’s songs. Ligon has been steadily churning out albums for decades, from self-released cassettes to releases on the indie label run by NRBQ keyboardist Terry Adams. Like his wife’s calendars, Ligon’s songs flow between boundaries, each delighting in its genre-free eccentricity. He says he was thrilled by the Flat Five album and notes that the group is working on a second volume of his songs.
“Scott (Ligon) and I were doing stuff since he was a baby — I remember watching him perform as a 10-year-old in Peoria,” Ligon says.
“He was paid in pork sandwiches,” McAdams adds.
The couple revels in the off-beat and the out-of-the-way corners of American culture. For a time in the late ’90s they ran the Record Roundup store on the North Side, a treasure trove of arty arcana and novelties. After the rent got too steep, they shipped off for a few years to Delaware to help care for McAdams’ aging parents. Each year, they would dutifully return to Chicago to maintain the country calendar show tradition, and 10 years ago they moved back to their adopted home.
McAdams, who studied at the Art Institute of Chicago in 1978-81, was always drawn to the city’s vibrant music scene as a muse for her interests in art, photography and film. In Ligon, she found a natural co-conspirator, one who appreciated the wonders to be found in the cultural margins as much as she did.
“It may be hard to believe for some people, but they have better country music here than a lot of places associated with country music,” McAdams says. “The people who come here find they have the freedom to do what they want, and that leads to a lot of people exploring different kinds of music.”
She scours everything from garage sales and flea markets to eBay in search of 16-mm films of musicians in action to fuel her country calendar dreams. “I don’t think people get that excited when they hear about 16-mm films, but when they actually see them, they notice the difference,” she says. “It’s 24 frames per second going by. It’s the closest you can get to seeing some of these people play live.”
Ligon and McAdams are especially excited about showing a Buffalo Springfield mini-medley dug up from a ’60s variety show and a Royal Teens’ performance of “Short Shorts,” a ’50s one-off that turned into a catchphrase decades later. They also get revved up when talking about some of the live performances they’ve lined up, including a live recreation of a Les Paul-Mary Ford recording, with guitarist Joel Patterson accompanied by Kelly Hogan and Nora O’Connor channeling Ford’s double-tracked vocals. They’re also psyched about one nonmusical entertainer in particular.
“We have a new ‘Hula-Hoop Girl,’ ” Ligon notes. “Megan Malone used to do Hula-Hoop to music — we found her on Touhy (Rogers Park) Beach. But she enlisted in the Army and had to bail out. Fortunately, we saw Emma Bice at Prop Theatre, and she’s fantastic. She’s going to perform to a Flat Five song.”
“Her hoops light up,” McAdams adds. “We’re looking forward to that.”
Greg Kot co-hosts “Sound Opinions” at 8 p.m. Friday and 2 and 11 p.m. Saturday on WBEZ-FM 91.5.
Greg Kot is a Tribune critic.
When: 8 p.m. Dec. 9
Where: FitzGerald’s, 6615 W. Roosevelt Rd., Berwyn
Tickets: $20; www.fitzgeraldsnightclub.com