Compass Records 747562
After a 45-year run as one of America’s leading bluegrass bands, Special Consensus decided to take the long road back to their sweet Chicago home for their anniversary project. One unique quality of Special C (as they’re internationally known) is that native son Greg Cahill chose to keep the band based in Chicagoland instead of moving to Nashville to be closer to the beating heart of the bluegrass industry. The result has always been a uniquely Midwestern bluegrass sound, a strength they play off again and again on this stellar CD.
Deciding to honor Chicago’s often under-appreciated place in bluegrass history was a natural for this project. The opener, penned jointly by Becky Buller, Missy Raines, and album co-producer Alison Brown, is a fresh-paced, uptempo ode to the city’s legendary WLS National Barn Dance radio show. The Barn Dance, featuring a variety of early country stars, became a beacon of musical home for the thousands of Southerners like the Monroe Brothers who’d emigrated North to find work.
Using a clever blend of originals, traditional tunes, and songs with direct Chicago connections, Chicago Barn Dance skips lightly through a wonderfully diverse song list. Singer-songwriter Robbie Fulks penned “East Chicago Blues,” his paean to the saga of Southern emigrants like Bill Monroe leaving Kentucky’s coal fields and homestead farms for the burgeoning oil refineries deliberately downwind of the Windy City.
Continuing the “Windy City Rules” theme, they cover blues legend Robert Johnson’s immortal “Sweet Home Chicago,” steering it astutely from the classic blues format into a bluegrass rare-up that would have even Johnson toe-tapping. Look for the masterful solo here by Nate Burie on mandolin leading into a crisp and clear flatpicking solo and soaring lead vocal by Rick Faris. They even take on Frank Sinatra’s classic “My Kind Of Town” as a soaring bluegrass instrumental, including a memorable twin banjo part by Cahill and Brown.
One breakout hit from this project just might be “Looking Out My Backdoor” by John Fogerty & Creedence Clearwater, with typically lyrical and lovely resonator guitar from the hands of Rob Ickes. Another surefire winner for bluegrass audiences and radio is the legendary train tune “City Of New Orleans” from revered Chicago musical hero Steve Goodman. There are plenty of other great tunes, like the jaunty “I Hope Gabriel Likes My Music” where Faris tosses off a couple of slippery, time-jumping flatpicking solos. And the band shows its masterful a cappella skills with the gospel classic “Won’t That Be A Happy Time.”
Cahill is the John Mayall of bluegrass, the driving force behind one of America’s greatest bluegrass bands that has served as a launching platform for so many great musicians—Josh Williams, Keith Baumann, Nashville tour de force Paul Kramer, and mandolin great Don Stiernberg, to name a bare few. Produced with the considerable expertise and imagination we’ve come to expect from the crew at Compass Records, and a keenly talented band and supporting musicians, Chicago Barn Dance presents one of bluegrass music’s most enduring bands at their big-shouldered peak. (Compass Records, 916 19th Ave. S., Nashville TN 37212, www.compassrecords.com.)DJM