Town Meets Country: Local writer makes a name for herself in Nashville music scene


By Anna Hughes | Photo by Victor Hilitski

Alison Bonaguro had always known she wanted to be a writer. With a degree in journalism and 15 years of experience in ad copywriting, she decided to chase a dream that combined her passion for storytelling with her love for country music.

Bonaguro and her husband have lived in their Clarendon Hills home since 1993, where they raised their three kids and “fell madly in love with life in a small town.” Bonaguro tells us more about her career, her time in Nashville, and her book in this Q&A with Hinsdale Magazine.

Hinsdale Magazine (HM): Where did you study journalism, and how long did you know you wanted to pursue a career in storytelling?

Alison Bonaguro (AB): I’ve always known I wanted to be a writer. So, I went to Marquette University and graduated with a degree in journalism. From there, I put in about 15 years as an advertising copywriter, and then country music came along. The stories in the songs made me want to write about the music and the people who make it.

HM: How long have you been a country music fan? What makes country music so special to you?

AB: I started listening to country in 1989. I felt like I was the one who discovered it. I love the stories, especially the sad ones. And the songs that let me live vicariously through them. I’ve never been in a rodeo, obviously, but I’ll sing a song like “Good Ride Cowboy” at the top of my lungs as if I have.

HM: Please share a little about your career paths before entering the country music scene.
AB: My advertising career was exactly what I wanted until it wasn’t. I’d always just wanted to write. I never cared how or where. But when I realized how much I loved country music, I had an epiphany that I could write about something that mattered to me. And that mattered.
HM: When did you know you could combine your passion for storytelling with your love of music?

AB: In 2003, while I was still a creative director at an ad agency in Chicago, I had a burst of courage and thought I’d be a natural to review country concerts for the Chicago Tribune. So, I started emailing story pitches to the entertainment editor incessantly. He didn’t reply at all until three years later. In 2006, he asked me to cover the Keith Urban show, and that was the start of a great run at the Tribune. And ever since, I’ve been able to make a living out of loving country music.

HM: Who are your favorite interviewees?

AB: There isn’t room in this magazine for that list. But if I had to narrow it down, I’d say the best artists I’ve interviewed have been Garth Brooks, Chris Stapleton, Blake Shelton, Dolly Parton, Brooks & Dunn, Kacey Musgraves, Luke Combs, Luke Bryan, and Dierks Bentley. But the list of artists I listen to regularly includes Morgan Wallen, Tim McGraw, Miranda Lambert, Kenny Chesney, Carrie Underwood, Eric Church, Carly Pearce, David Nail, Kelsea Ballerini, and so on.
HM: How do you prepare to interview A-list singers? Do you still get nervous?

AB: I don’t get nervous anymore because I treat every interview more like a conversation between friends. Plus, I do so much homework in advance that I know everything about the artist and then some.

HM: What’s your favorite memory from your time in the music industry? And what was your first “pinch-me” moment?

AB: My favorite memory is from 2014. I interviewed Garth Brooks for the first time when he was in Chicago to play at the Allstate Arena. In the course of that conversation, he asked me if I wanted to hand out front-row tickets to the fans in the way back. He promised to leave them for me at the box office. I expected to grab a pair of tickets and go share the country music joy. But he didn’t leave me a pair. He left me six pairs. I still remember how happy I was to make those 12 fans happier than they’d ever been at a concert.

One moment that still feels like one of those how-is-this-my-life nights was in 2017 when I was doing red carpet interviews at the Academy of Country Music Awards. I’d interviewed Tim McGraw a handful of times by then, and he’d always been friendly. But as he was walking down that red carpet, ignoring every TV camera and journalist with a recorder, he abruptly stopped when he saw me, backtracked, hugged me, and told me that it was good to see me.

HM: What made you decide to write your book, Backstaged: My 15 Years Behind the Scenes in Country Music? How was that writing process different from your everyday stories?

AB: As my career in the music industry started to gain momentum, I started keeping track of all the things happening behind the scenes. Nothing sordid, just the backstage shenanigans that I never wrote about in my official stories. So when the pandemic showed up, I had enough spare time to document them all and realized it might be enough for a book. It was so much easier than my day job because I wasn’t writing to please an editor or staying on an artist’s publicist’s good side.

HM: How would you describe Nashville to someone who has never been?

AB: Nashville’s my second home, so I’m the unofficial tour guide when my Chicago friends want to head down there. There is really something there for everyone, from honky-tonks to vineyards to music to shopping (I’m ashamed of how many pairs of cowboy boots I own from the stores on Lower Broadway). But for me, Nashville has become a place where I feel at home and where I’ve made some of my best friends. And it’s such a small city and tight-knit community that you never know who you might bump into. I’ve been seated next to a country star at a wedding, I’ve run into a Grammy-winning songwriter at Whole Foods, and I’ve seen a few singers singing at church.

HM: What’s your advice to someone looking to combine their passions with work? How has this improved your life?

AB: My advice would be the same advice Cody Johnson gives in his song “‘Til You Can’t”: If you’ve got a dream, chase it. Because a dream won’t chase you back.

For more information about Alison or to purchase a copy of her book, visit ■



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