By Chris Stuart
Special Consensus is one of the few bands that could have anniversary celebrations for their anniversary celebrations. In 1990, Special C celebrated its 15th anniversary. In 2000, the band celebrated its 25th anniversary with a special performance and recording at the Old Town School of Folk Music in Chicago. And now in 2010, the band just held its 35th anniversary/reunion concert on October 23, again at the Old Town School, and it has released its 15th album, succinctly titled 35, on Compass Records.
Thirty-five years. 1975. To put that into perspective, when Special C had its first gig, Gerald Ford was in the White House, the average price of gasoline was 53 cents a gallon, the Vietnam war came to an end, Jimmy Hoffa was reported missing, Saturday Night Live debuted, and a college dropout started a small company called Microsoft. In bluegrass, J.D. Crowe & the New South released their first album on Rounder, the Earl Scruggs Revue released Anniversary Album, and Alison Krauss turned four.
Though the band has had 43 members over the years, one person has been the driving force. Greg Cahill. It’s nearly impossible to describe a career of 35 years in a brief article, especially a career as multifaceted as Greg’s. Among his roles, he has been banjo player, bandleader, teacher, tour organizer, publicist, record producer, and is currently serving as board chair and president of the International Bluegrass Music Association.
Longevity in anything requires patience, sacrifice, and sheer doggedness. Greg has all of these qualities, but he wears them lightly and with great humility and humor. Thirty-five years on the road goes beyond these qualities, though, into a territory that few of us will ever see.
Greg grew up in the Chicago area in a musical family. His grandfather gave him a harmonica early and taught him his first tunes. His mother was a honkytonk piano player and his father was a tenor in the church choir. In true Midwest tradition, Greg took up the accordion at eight years old. But, it was in high school that he first saw someone play banjo in the style of Dave Guard of the Kingston Trio. Greg was soon deep into the folk boom, playing a 12string guitar and long-neck Silvertone and Vega banjos. He was also listening to a lot of blues players in Chicago, as well as other folk artists such as Steve Goodman. After graduating high school in 1964, Greg attended St. Mary’s College in Winona, Minn, and played in a folk trio. In his junior year, his friend Pat Frawley played Greg an LP that changed the course of his life—Earl Scruggs’ Foggy Mountain Banjo.
Greg recalls, “I tried to figure this out on my longneck banjo. First, I put my fingerpicks on backwards.” He soon figured it out, though, and began learning the intricacies of bluegrass banjo. And then, world interrupted in the form of the Vietnam War. After graduating college in 1968, Greg enlisted in the Army. “I was basically not in favor of the war, but I didn’t want to go to Canada, so I went in.” He was in basic training at Fort Benning, Ga., when a simulated hand grenade blew up next to him and he suffered significant hearing loss—enough to end his career as an infantryman and put him behind a desk. It’s still difficult for Greg to talk about the rest of his platoon, many of whom were killed in Vietnam.
His hearing loss remains. Greg says, “The hearing improved over time, but I will always have a condition known as tinnitus. That means that there is a ringing in my left ear all the time. I have learned to basically ignore it. However, it periodically becomes extremely noticeable, especially if I am around loud noise, including blasting sound systems. I then hear the ringing quite loud and although it doesn’t really hurt any more, it does throw off my pitch, because the ring is just shy of an A. So, that’s why I often have a difficult time singing, and these days I only sing an occasional harmony part.”
In 1970, Greg went back to civilian life and graduate school at the University of Illinois at Chicago. While there, he started going to festivals and took a few banjo lessons from Richard Hood who played in the Greater Chicago Bluegrass Band. By this time, Greg had bought a Sears Silvertone banjo and then a Gibson Mastertone. He started hanging out in Hyde Park jamming and meeting others interested in bluegrass.
Greg’s teaching of kids began early in his career. After earning a master’s in social work in 1974, he became director of a nonprofit organization working with youth programs in the Chicago area. He was also giving free banjo lessons to kids. Taking bluegrass in to the schools would later become a huge part of Special Consensus’s identity as a band.
In 1975, Greg and bass player Mark Edelstein (who had played harmonica with blues artist Hound Dog Taylor) started Special Consensus. The name seems odd, even for the early ’70s. It comes from two sources. The people Greg was playing music with came from different walks of life so they described it as there being a “special consensus” for playing music together. But more specifically, the phrase comes from the Don Juan books of Carlos Castaneda. Greg says, “The Yaqui Indians believed ‘special consensus’ was the place where the good in the spiritual world comes together with the good stuff in the physical world.”
Edelstein and Greg played for seven years together, getting the band off to a solid start, but neither anticipated just how long the band would last. Edelstein left in 1982 and Greg became the leader, taking the band full-time. Chicago in the mid’70s had a lot of music clubs. Greg honed his banjo and stage skills playing every Monday night for seven years at a club on the north side of Chicago called Minstrels. Greg recalls his music inspirations at that time: “I was a big Newgrass Revival and Courtney Johnson fan. We recorded ‘Cold Sailor’ on our first album.”
He was also actively looking for material and discovered that Leon Jackson, who wrote the bluegrass classic “Love, Please Come Home,” lived in a suburb of Chicago. Greg recalls, “I sought him out in ’77 or ’78. Leon lived in condemned buildings, but he could still really play and sing. He got cancer of the mouth and had part of his jaw removed. He knew he wasn’t in good shape. He had a notebook that had all his songs in it, a big binder. We went over to his house and he sat there playing songs in the book. He gave us ‘Late Last Night’ and ‘Long Winter’ for our first album.”
In 1980, Greg was approached by Michael Wolfsohn about doing a record, which would become his first solo album, Lone Star. He had moved to Evanston, Ill., where he lived three blocks from legendary mandolin player and comedian Jethro Burns. The band at the time—Mitch Corbin on guitar, Mark Weiss on mandolin, and Marc Edelstein on bass—joined with Byron Berline on fiddle and Jethro Burns on mandolin for Greg’s solo recording.
Greg remembers a special meeting of these two music heroes of his. “I had a guitar player named Mitch Corbin from Louisiana whose dad knew Byron Berline. We asked them both to play on the album. So, Byron and Jethro met in my apartment for the first time, though they had certainly known of each other before that. Byron had been a big fan of Jethro. We went to the studio on a Monday, and afterward I went to the club. We used to play from 9 p.m. to 3:30 a.m. in those days. Later that night, Byron comes roaring up in a taxi cab and gets up on the stand and plays with us. So many people came in, we had to set up our own speakers outside. Midway through the first set, in comes Jethro. We absolutely had a blast.”
In the early ’80s, the band began traveling down to Texas and playing in a chain restaurant called the Filling Station. He met songwriter Michael Ballew there and recorded the second Special C album, Blue Northerns, a play on words from a phrase in Ballew’s song “Bluewater.” Cahill recalls, “We used one of the references in the lyrics for the title. However, the actual reference is ‘blue northers,’ which are the very strong Texas gales that come out of nowhere. We thought that it would be clever to change ‘blue northers’ to ‘blue northerns’ since the band was based in the north. We didn’t realize how much the Texas folks would hate that play on the word!”
Being on the road is a huge part of Greg’s life. He’s traveled many many miles over the years. He still drives a white Turtle Top vehicle he bought in late 2002 that currently has about 400,000 miles on it.
Greg has maintained a consistent European presence for nearly twenty years. “There was an organization in Chicago called Artists Abroad, which was funded by the city, and they asked me if I wanted to take the band to South America in 1990. We did a tour of Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay, and Chile. Then at an IBMA convention, John Sheldon of the Scottish Bluegrass Association put together our first trip to the U.K. in the early ’90s. I then connected with an Irish music club and met Richard Hawkins. We’ve been going to Europe biannually ever since.”
Promoter and writer Richard Hawkins, who set up Special C’s first tour of Ireland in 1995, says, “Greg has the most positive attitude of anyone I’ve ever met, is probably the hardestworking person I know, and at the same time he’s the most fun to be around. It’s the IBMA’s good fortune that he is where he is, doing the job he’s doing.”
Greg is a great ambassador for bluegrass. He approaches his international touring with a broader idea than just getting across the pond. He knows that he not only represents his band, but bluegrass, as well. Greg says, “You really have to think about the fact that you’re representing the music and something bigger than just your band. It was always about promoting the music.”
When he’s not touring abroad, he and the band keep up a steady yearround touring schedule in the U.S. He’s especially adept at working in the school programs around his gigs. He started doing this in 1984. Greg recalls, “A teacher friend of mine invited me to play banjo for their classes, and I brought Chris Jones along a few times. I realized that this could be really something, an introduction to bluegrass for a lot of kids. I went to the library (of course, this was preInternet) and wrote up a threepage study guide and started tacking it on for a minimal fee to concert dates. Having worked with the youth programs and grants in Chicago, I knew what they needed in order to get the funding and make it happen. It was very well received, but sometimes we went into the roughest inner city schools. I told the band, ‘Just go in and enjoy it, and the kids will see that.’”
With the help of the Northern Illinois Bluegrass Association in the late ’90s, Greg coproduced a videotape for bluegrass in the schools. And in 2003, he coproduced the one for IBMA’s Bluegrass In The Schools program titled Discover Bluegrass. “There was a time when we’d do fifty to a hundred school shows a year—sometimes four schools a day. I figured it up and I can honestly say that we’ve put bluegrass music in front of a million kids. We approached it like a music history/geography lesson. We’d play a traditional tune and talk about where the music came from. Each bandmember would describe their instrument, and then we’d sing harmony parts. I’ve got drawers full of letters from all the kids saying basically, ‘We never heard bluegrass music before and we love it.’”
Greg is also still a much soughtafter banjo teacher. He began at Chicago’s Old Town School Of Folk in 1973. He recalls, “I started the Bluegrass Ensemble classes that met one night every week, but eventually I had to go to only one day a month for private lessons due to The Special C tour schedule—and the hours I spend on IBMA business.”
When asked how he’s kept touring, teaching, and volunteering up for 35 years, Greg responds as someone who still sees playing bluegrass and being on the road as something fresh and fun. “I still wake up in the morning thinking about how I could have played that solo or some new tune better. I wasn’t going to do this forever, but you just get so caught up in it. My dad [Bob Cahill], a CPA, would do my income tax every year and he’d say, ‘How can you live like this?’ and ‘I don’t know how you can keep doing this.’ When my dad died in ’94, he had just said to me, ‘One more year.’ Two weeks later, he died from a brain aneurysm.” That his father would recognize the love Greg has for the music, enough to push him to keep him going “one more year” for many years means a lot to Greg, and he’s thankful he heard that from his father before his death.
Greg has always been someone who has given back throughout his career—in school programs, teaching, and in helping put tours and events together. When IBMA began, it was natural that he would get involved and his participation has grown throughout the years. Greg recalls, “I remember hearing about IBMA and I joined because of the mission statement, that we would all be working shoulder to shoulder for the growth of the music. That’s what we need. We need to work together.”
In 1998, Tim Stafford asked Greg to chair the Bluegrass In The Schools committee. He also became a board member and has served for 12 years and became president of the organization in 2006. Greg says of his role as president and chair of IBMA, “I see myself as a mediator. I try to pull people together, to encourage professionals in the world of bluegrass music to become members of the IBMA, to help keep the board on track as we work towards accomplishing the mission of the organization and to always keep an ear open to input from the membership. We are all working very hard together to promote bluegrass music and to make the world of bluegrass music better for all involved.”
Stan Zdonik, vicechair of the IBMA adds, “It has been my great pleasure to serve on the IBMA board under the leadership of Greg Cahill. He works impressively hard, has a great sense of how to achieve consensus (maybe his band name suggests that), and shows tremendous wisdom when it comes to approaching the really hard issues. I am always struck with his ability as a problem solver. He is willing to talk a problem out with no hidden agenda, only a desire to find the best possible outcome. Most of all, I value his friendship.”
The new album, 35, features six songs from previous outofprint recordings, and six songs newly recorded with the most recent band lineup of Greg Cahill on banjo and vocals, Rick Faris on mandolin and vocals, David Thomas on bass and vocals, and Ryan Roberts on guitar and vocals. The current Special Consensus is regarded as one of the best bands Greg has ever put together. Ryan, David, and Rick are tasteful players and strong singers who not only pull off any of the standard bluegrass repertoire, but are also writing their own songs.
David Thomas, from Elkmont, Ala., is a multiinstrumentalist and tenor singer who started playing with Greg in 2007. David had never traveled farther than Alabama and Tennessee before joining the band, but in the first few weeks he had visited 32 states. A true gentleman, David is quiet, but quick in recognizing what needs to be done…on the road or in a song.
Ryan Roberts and David cowrote a song for the new album, “Used To These Old Blues.” Ryan is an awardwinning songwriter and great lead vocalist for Special C in the tradition of Chris Jones and Josh Williams. But, he brings his own sound and sensibility to the band. Originally from Nova Scotia, Ryan won the Eastern Canadian Bluegrass Award for best songwriter five years in a row (20052009) and best bluegrass album for his solo recording in 2009. He wrote four songs on the new Special C album.
Rick Faris came to Special C (also in 2009) from the Faris Family based in Kansas and who have won several SPBGMA awards. Rick is an accomplished multiinstrumentalist, luthier, and teacher. It’s not by accident that Greg hires players who can play more than one instrument and who can sing and travel well. Greg knows what it takes to be successful as an ensemble on the road.
The alumni of Special Consensus all feel a certain bond and most try to return for the anniversary celebrations in Chicago. Bandleader and Sirius/XM disc jockey Chris Jones says of Greg, “I gained so much by getting to play music and work with Greg Cahill early in my career. Now, as a bandleader myself, I still am inspired by him. His hard work and dedication to the music are unsurpassed, and I learned from him that you can let musicians in your band be themselves musically within the overall vision of the band and get results that are good for everybody. Most importantly, I learned that you can be generous and decent to people and still succeed. He’s a true gentleman of bluegrass music, and I feel honored to have had a chance to be in his band.”
Thirty-five years in bluegrass—on the road, recording, teaching, volunteering—Greg Cahill is the Cal Ripken of bluegrass. Only, this iron man is still going, still as energetic and committed to playing the music and inspiring others as he was in 1975 when he set out to play music full time. It’s an amazing accomplishment, one that deserves to be recognized at least every five years. Greg and the 43 bandmembers are already looking forward to the fortieth.
Chris Stuart is a writer and songwriter living in San Diego, Calif.
Special Consensus Discography
The Special Consensus Bluegrass Band, Tin Ear Records, 1979
Blue Northerns, Acoustic Revival Records, 1983
Freight Train Boogie, Turquoise Records, 1986
A Hole In My Heart, Turquoise Records, 1989
Hey, Y’ALL, Turquoise Records, 1991
Green Rolling Hills, Turquoise Records, 1993
Roads & Rails, Shy Town Records (selfreleased), 1995
Strong Enough To Bend, Pinecastle Records, 1996
Our Little Town, Pinecastle Records, 1998
25th Anniversary, Pinecastle Records, 2000
Route 10, Pinecastle Records, 2002
Everything’s Alright, Pinecastle Records, 2005
The Trail Of Aching Hearts, Pinecastle Records, 2007
Signs, Pinecastle Records, 2009
35, Compass Records, 2010
Greg Cahill Discography
Lone Star, Rabbit Records, 1980
Blue Skies, Turquoise Records, 1992
Night Skies, Shy Town Records, 1998
Not The Same, Blue Mill Productions, 2004