Bands don’t accidentally get to forty-five years. That just doesn’t happen.
Yet sometimes, it does.
With roots that start in Chicago and go as far back as 1975, 2020 marks forty-five years for the legendary bluegrass outfit Special Consensus and they’re celebrating in a big way. Led by founding member, banjoist Greg Cahill and fresh off their 2018 Grammy®-nominated, IBMA “Album of the Year” winning Rivers and Roads, Special Consensus is marking their milestone with the release of Chicago Barn Dance and American Songwriter has the distinct honor of premiering its first offering.
Penned specifically for the album by alt-country singer/songwriter, multi-instrumentalist and former Special Consensus bandmember Robbie Fulks, “East Chicago Blues” is written from the first-person perspective of bluegrass creator Bill Monroe. The song tells Monroe’s personal, true-life journey of trading a farmer’s life in Kentucky for the oil refineries in Chicago.
Even with his alumni status in the band and the longtime friendship between Cahill and Fulks, the song wasn’t an easy get.
“We’re old buds. We’ve been good buds for a long time, so he let me wear him down,” says Cahill with a laugh. “When we initially spoke about it, I asked if he would consider writing something for the album. He was in the middle of moving to California at the time so his answer was he would love to, but he had a lot on his plate. Then I saw him again at a festival in Michigan, he was there with Linda Lewis and his band. We were hanging out, so I asked him again. I said it would be an honor, but it would also be cool as hell if we could get a song from you. ‘I really want to do it,’ was Fulks reply. ‘Let me see if I can squeeze it into the schedule because I don’t want to rush through it.’
“About a month later he sent me a note asking if anyone had ever written a song about Bill Monroe in the first person. I wrote him back and said ‘My God, no. How did you ever even think of that?’ A week later he sent the song.”
Mission accomplished. Right? Not quite. As they say on late night TV; but wait, there’s more!
“Initially when he asked who was going to sing it, I told him it works out that our mandolin player (Nate Burie) could sing it and he was like ‘That’s perfect! The mandolin player!’ But (album producer and label co-founder) Alison Brown had the idea of having Burie sing the first verse as narrator, Robbie come in and sing the Bill Monroe stuff and then they finish singing together.”
Did it happen? You bet it did.
“I finally wore him down that it would be really, really cool if he would sing on it.”
That song, along with the title track, set the tone for the album. Crafted as a musical postcard to the old National Barn Dance radio program that aired from Chicago from 1924 – 1968, Chicago Barn Dance pays homage to the radio show that indirectly birthed The Grand Ole Opry. Broadcast primarily on WLS-AM, the National Barn Dance broadcast country & western and bluegrass music out over the Midwest and regularly featured artists like Hank Williams, Bill and Charlie Monroe, Patsy Montana and Lulu Belle and Scotty.
Along those lines, Special Consensus put their signature stamp on each song, be it an original written for this record or a staple that’s been around for decades. Case in point; where else are you going to hear the twin banjos of Cahill and Brown alongside the twin fiddles of Mike Barnett and Pat McAveninue on a Sinatra classic?
“This isn’t just forty-five years of our connect with Chicago, there has been country music and bluegrass music around town for a long time. Every song has some connect. There’s the Steve Goodman ‘City of New Orleans,’ the Robbie Fulks song, Sinatra’s ‘My Kind of Town’ and ‘Lake Shore Drive’ which was the big hit by Aliotta Haynes Jeremiah. ‘I Hope Gabriel Likes My Music’ was a big song for a guy who lived here back in the 30’s and 40’s playing at the Aragon Ballroom when they had the big dance bands. That guy’s name was Louis Armstrong.
“Chicago Barn Dance is a celebration of a lot of things. It’s a celebration of Chicago, it’s forty-five years for us and it’s 25 years for Compass Records so it seemed like a good thing to do.