Everything I know about country music, I learned from Heather’s Li’l Country Calendar.
Well, darned near.
For instance, not until I acquired my first did I know that on March 16, 1974, Roy Acuff showed Richard Nixon how to yo-yo at the first Grand Ole Opry show at Opryland. Or that Minnie Pearl was born Sarah Ophelia Colley on October 22, 1912, let alone that Dolly Parton once said, “I still like to pee off the porch now and then.”
Heather McAdams herself has learned much of what she knows about country music from researching her calendars. She likens it to the most interesting part of doing reports for school. And she knows a thing or two about school. She studied painting and printmaking at Virginia Commonwealth University, and earned a master’s in filmmaking at the Art Institute of Chicago. She later taught filmmaking there, after teaching painting, drawing and something called “Contemporary Issues” at the University of Rhode Island and the University of Kentucky.
Upon settling in Chicago, she submitted a few drawings to the Chicago Reader and eventually won some notoriety there as a cartoonist. She’s not sure when she started making calendars with her drawings; it could have been as early as grammar school.
McAdams began giving calendars to friends as Christmas gifts around 1984. Somewhere along the line she got hooked on photocopying her art — bigger, smaller, in collage — a fixation perfectly consistent with the singular whimsy of her personality. (These days, she’s obsessed with trading single playing cards on eBay and watching the Salvation Army store across from her house; she says it’s like a theater set.) She’s sure, though, that she’s been selling her Country Calendars for at least fifteen years, because she met her husband, musician Chris Ligon, while hawking the 1992 edition at Club Lower Links, a Chicago performance space.
McAdams found her way to country music through the bluegrass sounds that surrounded her during her youth in Annandale, Virginia. Later, unique performances hiked her interest. “When I was teaching at the University of Kentucky,” she recalls, “there was a club there called Cafe LMNOP run by Bradley Harrison Picklesimer, who I made a 30-minute documentary on, probably my best film. At his club, he would hold these drag shows. Bradley was from Kentucky, and all the drag queens were from Kentucky so of course they had country drag shows.
“I remember this one guy who was covered with tattoos did a rendition of Loretta Lynn doing ‘Fist City’. The way he looked, he was pretty gnarly lookin’, but boy I’ll tell ya — he was country through and through, and he could do Loretta Lynn lip-sync so good, I thought, ‘Wow! I gotta get all those.’ I get into stuff in odd ways like that.”
Scores of people get into country music via the odd but endlessly entertaining Country Calendar, crammed to its tiny margins with quirky details, quotes and mini-biographies of country artists, from the famous to the impossibly obscure, and the occasionally questionable (Frank Sinatra?). Naturally the birthdays never change, but each new calendar offers many new facts and insights. “I have a lot of really loyal people that have continued to buy my calendar over the years,” McAdams says, “and they continue to buy them as Christmas presents for other people. I don’t want to let them down!”
The calendar outgrew photocopying years ago, and its production runs have increased substantially since 1997, when McAdams and Ligon first built a live show around it. The event has since become an annual affair, with the usual Chicago suspects (Jon Langford, Kelly Hogan, Robbie and Donna Fulks), along with frequent surprise entries, each performing a song by one of the artists-of-the-month. The show includes performance art, comedy, and extraordinary 16mm film clips of featured performers.
The 2005 Calendar show took the project into still another medium, premiering a CD compiled from the best recorded live performances at previous shows. Its 21 tracks include a hilarious Opry-style live introduction by McAdams and Ligon, and, for example, Neko Case covering Roger Miller’s “The Moon Is High (And So Am I)” and Ligon and Andrew Bird covering Bob Wills’ “Cadillacin’ In My Model A”.
For 2006, artists-of-the-month include Glen Campbell, Doc Watson, Melba Montgomery, Loretta Lynn, Hawkshaw Hawkins and Bobbie Gentry. Avowed vinyl-head McAdams offers advice for March 16: “Listen to your 45s.” And we learn that Ernest Tubb said, “Mean what you sing and sing what you mean.”