"It is a blur," says Greg Cahill, 53, after three Grammy nominations, ten albums, 9000 gigs, well over a million miles traveled between 49 states and thirteen countries, 35 personnel changes, one divorce, and 25 years at the helm of the Chicago-based bluegrass band, Special Consensus.
This has not been a quarter-century of chartered jets, or even the chartered buses of your average country or rock star. It has been the life of a professional bluegrass musician, spending year after year and mile after mile behind the wheels of station wagons and vans, playing to hostile drunks in redneck bars as well as to enthusiastic festival crowds.
Perhaps most remarkably, what Special Consensus consistently has offered to every crowd they have stood before is a high caliber of musicianship. As the door has revolved and musicians have come and gone, Cahill has managed to hire some of the best pickers and singers in the business, in an area geographically removed from the hotbeds of hot licks, such as Nashville.
A few have gone on to high-profile solo success, such as alternative country innovator Robbie Fulks--who credits Cahill with teaching him "the gestalt of difficult on-the-road living"--and Chris Jones, who, with his band, the Night Drivers, is one of the most respected forces in the bluegrass business. Several alumni, such as John Rice and Paul Kramer, are heard by millions as first-call session players for recording studios and touring country acts, while others have applied lessons learned in the band to careers outside of music.
The majority will be performing Saturday at 7:30 PM at a Special Consensus gala 25th anniversary reunion concert at the Old Town School of Folk Music, 4544 N. Lincoln Avenue (phone 773-728-6000).
The band's new Pinecastle CD, "Special Consensus: 25th Anniversary," contains a dozen songs with the current membership, plus a tune or two from each of the ensemble's first six albums, recorded between 1979 and 1993.
The newest line-up is as strong a quartet as has ever carried the Special Consensus name, the most recent addition being the young mandolinist Josh Williams, who came to the band having already released two solo albums on the Copper Creek label.
But if, from the first row, Cahill makes it all look effortless, the truth from the wings is anything but.
"So many times, I thought about giving it up," says Cahill, "because it does take a toll. My first wife and I split up, and it wasn't all because of music, but that had plenty to do with it. At that time, the late '70s into the mid-'80s, just to make reasonable money, we would go on three and four-week road trips all the time. Sometimes I would try to fly my son out just to spend a weekend with me wherever we were playing just so I could see him more. And when I was in town, I was working all the time.
"And it always seems like when you really get rolling and you get some great people and everybody gets along, somebody has to move, or they get a great offer elsewhere."
One such offer came in Finland.
"In 1991, we were in Europe on tour, and our lead singer, Dallas Wayne, was approached by a Finnish record label who thought he was the best country singer they had ever heard," says Cahill.
And so was born Dallas Wayne and the Dim Lights, a genuine star of American country music, albeit on the other side of the Atlantic. To his stay with Special Consensus, Wayne credits an important professional revelation.
"I saw how it was actually possible for a bluegrass band to make a living," says Wayne. "I never was really convinced of it until I saw Cahill's organization. He's the most positive person I know."
Cahill's decision to make music his life's work came relatively late. Born in Chicago, Cahill grew up playing the accordion as a kid and frailed on a banjo during the folk years of the 1960s before heading off to the Army and jungle training in preparation for combat in Vietnam. A blast near his head by a simulated grenade blew out most of Cahill's hearing in one ear. Ironically, that injury kept him stationed in Georgia and near plenty of bluegrass festivals, allowing him to soak up--at least with one ear for the time being--more of the sounds that would change the course of his life.
Upon returning to Chicago in 1970, Cahill worked for the Cook County Department of Public Aid, eventually using the GI bill to earn a Masters degree from the Jane Addams School of Social Work at the University of Illinois. During grad school, Cahill's love for the banjo deepened, and he started playing in various bluegrass bands with other grad students from U of I and the University of Chicago. Once out of school, Cahill divided his time between music and social work, and got very little sleep.
In 1974, Cahill made a decision to drop his day job for a year and dedicate himself fully to the banjo.
"It was amazing how fast he learned," recalls charter Special Consensus mandolinist Jeremy Raven. "Not miraculous, because he worked hard at it. But impressive. There isn't any doubt he's been improving ever since, but he had all the advanced basics down quite early, in that first mercurial learning curve."
"When he switched his energy over from social work to music, and started practicing nine hours a day, it was a little bit like what it's like when you go water-skiing," says original Special Consensus guitarist Jim Iberg. "You're waiting to take off and the guy in the boat hits the power, and all of a sudden you're pulled up out of the water and carried along. That was how Greg took off with his skill, and it just pulled the whole band along with him and brought us to a new level."
"From the earliest days of the band, Greg and I emphasized putting everything we had into the music," says bassist Marc Edelstein, who helped organize the original group with Cahill. "We chose players that had that potential for intensity, and I believe that our approach affected their performance, too. As a result, each incarnation of the band, though stylistically different, had an identifiable core strength."
Those early years were boom times for bluegrass in the city. Lincoln Avenue and Old Town provided a half-dozen bluegrass-friendly clubs, and Special Consensus would play to crowds that had stood in lines two blocks long just to get in, stuffing pass-around pitchers with quarters and dollar bills that could add up to $1000 a night for the boys in the band.
But musical trends follow cycles, and as fewer clubs booked acoustic string music, Cahill and his colleagues would have to spend endless hours on the road in order to make a living. Cahill credits a network of supportive people, from family and friends to acquaintances on the road who, to this day, still insist on the band crashing at their places when they swing through town, for the band's survival. His parents have helped with the business end, while Cahill's second wife, Jackie, comes from a background in theater, and knows what is involved in making it in entertainment. Cahill's son, Dan, now 30, has been both a fan and a help to the band since he was a kid.
But as much as this might be a time for Cahill to look back and reflect on the past, his actions have never been more future-oriented than now. As the head of the Bluegrass in the Schools committee of the International Bluegrass Music Association (IBMA), Cahill has been instrumental in developing programs and grants for schools to bring bluegrass music into classrooms nationwide. From lesson plans on bluegrass music for teachers, to funding strategies, to the inception of a new project that will eventually provide multi-media and internet materials on the history of bluegrass music--developed specifically for the classroom--the goal is for bluegrass to be taught as part of a Fine Arts curriculum, as a traditional form of American music.
Yet one senses that, for Cahill, the best part of being involved with schools is getting even more chances to play.
"In those early years, when things would get tough, I'd think, 'One more year,' and then after a year, I'd think again, 'One more year, just one more year and then I will have it out of my system.' But the music just ate me up, consumed me. Even now, I still wake up in the morning and I always have one banjo lick on my mind, or I've heard a tune the night before and I have to learn it. It just never goes away."
* * * * * * * * *
WHERE ARE THEY NOW?
The current line-up of Special Consensus consists of founder Greg Cahill (banjo, vocals), Chris Walz (guitar, lead vocals), Josh Williams (mandolin, vocals), and Tim Dishman (bass, vocals). Here are the thirty-two musicians who came before, including the years each played with the band, and what they are doing now. They are grouped according to the main instrument they played with the band. An asterisk (*) indicates that the musician is tentatively scheduled to perform at the Special Consensus 25th Anniversary Reunion Concert at the Old Town School of Folk Music on May 6th.
-Jim Iberg (1975-1976); Psychologist practicing in Evanston and Chicago.
-Ed Walsh (1976-1979); Attorney, partner at the Chicago law firm of Sachnoff & Weaver.*
-Mitch Corbin (1979-1981); Plays music in Orlando, Florida, in several settings, including Disney World's River Country Water Park.*
-Chris Jones (1981-1985); He and his bluegrass band, the Night Drivers, will be releasing their fourth CD for the Rebel label this summer.*
-Tim Gleason (1985); Works in Wichita, Kansas, for Bombardier Aviation in certification of experimental aircraft, and is active in the Wichita music scene.
-Dennis White (1985-1988); Lives in Bozeman, Montana, and recently released a solo CD, "Elbow Room," for the Wonderfolk label.*
-Bob Lucas (1988); Composer living in Rushsylvania, Ohio, whose songs have been recorded by many artists, including New Grass Revival and, most recently, Alison Krauss.
-Robbie Fulks (1988-1990); A star of the Alternative Country genre, living in Lindenhurst, his fourth CD, "The Very Best of Robbie Fulks," was released in January by the Bloodshot label.*
-Marty Marrone (1990-1996); Until recently, managed the Front Porch Music Store in Valparaiso, Indiana, he is now a contractor for Fed Ex Ground, and is in the process of relocating, with his wife and son, from Merrillville, Indiana to St. Paul, Minnesota, and remains active playing bluegrass music with local musicians.*
-Bobby Burns (1996-1997); Plays in the Lone Mountain Band in Chattanooga, Tennessee, with his wife and Special Consensus alumna, Diana Phillips, and repairs musical instruments at Wilborns Music Store in Ringgold, Georgia.
-Marc Edelstein (1975-1982); After receiving his MBA, worked for many years in banking and finance, and is now dividing his time between performing music, creating stained glass windows for new and rehabbed houses, and consulting in market research for Abbott Laboratories.*
-John Rice (1982-1984); Studio musician (acoustic and electric guitar, mandolin, fiddle, banjo) in Chicago, he has recently performed on CDs by Jon Langford, Anna Fermin, Kelly Hogan, Chris Mills, and Red Red Meat, and on commercials for Coke, McDonald's and Kraft.*
-Jerry Eliason (1984-1985); Product Standards Engineer for the product handling company, Mannesmann Dematic, in Cleveland, Ohio, and double bassist with the Suburban Symphony Orchestra.
-Scott Salak (1985-1989); Teaches mathematics at Indiana University in Bloomington.*
-Dallas Wayne (1989-1991); Divides his time between European touring and recording with Dallas Wayne and the Dim Lights, and San Francisco, writing songs for Warner/Chapell Publishing.*
-Darren Wilcox (1992-1995); Finishing his apprenticeship as an electrician in Wichita, Kansas, where he lives with his wife and daughter, and plays with the Big Twang bluegrass band.
-Diana Phillips (1996-1997); Assistant to the director of the Signal Centers, a school for handicapped children in Chattanooga, Tennessee, and plays with husband Bobby Burns (see above) in the Lone Mountain Band.
-Andrea Roberts (1997-1999); Lives in Nashville, freelances on bass, plays and sings with the Kim & Joel Fox Band and Curtis Jones & Lonesome Timber, and works for a real estate company.*
-Jeremy Raven (1975-1976); Psychotherapist with the Chicago Department of Public Health's Bureau of Mental Health, and publisher of the Astral Opry.
-Wally Vispoel (1976-1977); Associate Professor of Educational Psychology and Measurements and Statistics at the University of Iowa, Iowa City.
-Mark Weiss (1977-1982); Lives in Chicago, his agency, Mark Weiss Live Music/Special Events, books, among other things, many of the summertime outdoor concerts in Chicago.
-Paul Kramer (1982-1984); A musician in high demand in Nashville, he is currently on tour with Gary Allen, and has recorded or toured with Lionel Cartwright, Deana Carter, Suzy Boggus, Rhett Akins, Doug Stone, Pam Tillis, Gretchen Peters, and Pam Gadd.
-Howie Tarnower (1984); Lives in the Boston area, where he is the musical director of the Children's Theater Freelance Players, works in the field of music and expressive therapy, leads two bands--the Blue Suede Boppers and Boston City Limits--and in his spare time, repairs cars at Click and Clack's Good News Garage, of NPR's Car Talk fame.
-Tim Wilson (1984-1990); Lives in Austin, Texas, working as an administrator for that state's drug treatment program, and is in graduate school pursuing an MBA.*
-Don Stiernberg (1991); "The best jazz mandolin player alive," says Greg Cahill of multi-instrumentalist Stiernberg, a studio musician, producer, teacher, and recording artist living in Skokie, whose most recent CD, "About Time," was released in 1999 on the Blue Night label.*
-Drew Carson (1992-1994 & 1995); A partner in the Carson Construction Company, and a freelance musician (mandolin and guitar) in the Chicago area.*
-Keith Baumann (1994); Full-time musician living in Elmhurst, leads the Uptown Rhythm Club swing band and the Dixie Tornadoes jazz band, plays with his wife, singer Susan Smentek, and co-leads the Third Coast Bluegrass Band with fellow Special Consensus alum Colby Maddox.
-John Wheat (1995); Living in Terre Haute, Indiana, worked as a counselor at a home for boys until last year, now a full-time musician with the country rock band, "Tilford Hayes."
-Colby Maddox (1995-1999); Resource Center Director for the Old Town School of Folk Music, teaches mandolin and fiddle, and co-leads the Third Coast Bluegrass Band with Keith Baumann (see above).*
-Jim Hale (1975-1976); Cahill reports that "...the last I saw him, he was working and teaching as a geologist in Idaho."
-Ollie O'Shea (1986); Toured as a sideman with country stars such as George Ducas and Jim Lauderdale, now living in Nashville writing songs for Lauderdale's Good Bit Music publishing.*
-Al Murphy (1990-1991); Plays and teaches fiddle in Iowa City, Iowa.*