This article is part of Wide Open Country's ongoing series Back to Country, which celebrates country music venues across the U.S.
Two kinds of people go to Carol's Pub in Chicago: country music fans and late-night drinkers. Both are welcome. The honky-tonk dive bar, which opened on Clark Street in 1972, is still one of the city's premier spaces for country performances. For years it was also, famously, open till 4 a.m. So as Covid restrictions ease and live music makes a comeback, we bet Carol's will be back in full country swing.
A Hillbilly History
The words "Hillbilly Heaven" may not come to mind when picturing Chicago's popular Uptown neighborhood. Uptown, on the North side of the city, is a diverse -- and increasingly gentrified -- residential area. But throughout the 1950s and '60s it was indeed a haven for hillbillies! (Another, less affectionate nickname? Hick-Town.) Between the end of World War I and 1970, approximately 3.2 million Appalachian and Southern migrants moved to the Midwest, mainly in and around Chicago. The working-class influx significantly influenced local culture and music and nowhere was that more apparent than in Uptown. More specifically, at Carol's Pub. The cheap bar opened in Sheridan Park in 1972 and catered to a wild clientele: lovers of county and western music.
Sharon's Hillbilly Heaven also operated nearby on Lawrence Avenue. But it's Carol's that has stood the test of time. As if beamed down onto the unassuming block, a blinking arrow outside Carol's advertises live music. Inside, another flashy sign reveals the words "The Best in Country." The walls are still cluttered with such spirited images: neon beer signs, parking notices, vintage photos, and portraits of Dolly Parton. That colorful interior reflected the customers. Open until 4 a.m. for decades, Carol's pulled in a messy and fun-loving crowd: dart throwers, pool shooters, beer guzzlers, karaoke crooners, and of course, just those want to hear their kind of music: country. A rare genre in Chicago. In addition to the stacked country jukebox, Carol's Pub was also home to Diamondback: a house band known to rock the night away with classic country covers. The band kept up a longtime residency at Carol's and still plays around the city.
My cousin Amy, who frequented Carol's from 2000 to 2007, remembers Diamondback most fondly. "They made it home," she says. "Everyone always felt welcome. The place would be packed and somehow the server -- I think she was the only one -- brought us our drinks before they were ordered!" Amy said she was there the night June Carter Cash died and the lead singer of Diamondback, likely Lee Borek, had some beautiful words to share. "It was real special."
Carol's Pub Now
After 43 years in business, the beloved Chicago bar closed down in 2016. But just two years later, new owner Ed Warm purchased and reopened the venue with modest renovations. Confederate flags were removed. The pool table was replaced with a pinball machine and a Cubs-themed photo booth. The pub menu was also expanded. Now, in addition to Carol's OG bologna sandwiches, you can order cheese curds, chicken tenders, double cheeseburgers topped with Merkts cheddar, Carol's Sauce, and more... The grease is necessary after a few of Carol's famous Jell-O shots or a classic Chicago handshake: our city's notorious combination of Malört liquor and Old Style beer. I myself enjoyed a cold Old Style while visiting Carol's last week -- without the shot of Illinois' mysterious, gasoline-esque alcohol.
Currently, Carol's Pub is open until midnight during the week and until 2 am on Friday and Saturday nights. But the employee I spoke to guessed that, post-pandemic, the hours would hopefully return to 4 a.m. Chicago is severely lacking on after-hours moves -- especially after 2020. So the presence of Carol's is more important than ever. The camaraderie of a 4 a.m. bar is special: the rush of continuing the night. And in drunkenly flocking to Carol's, over those many years, I'd bet that lots of unsuspecting Chicagoans discovered that they actually like country music.