Bluegrass Band Going On A Half-Century

By Ross Boissoneau

Numbers to know: Six, two, 20-plus and 48. As in six International Bluegrass Music Association wins, two Grammy nominations, more than 20 recordings, and 48 years (and counting) since Greg Cahill founded the Chicago-based bluegrass outfit Special Consensus in 1975.

That’s a lot of history. And yes, a lot of numbers. But the numbers aren’t the important thing. The music is.

Special Consensus

Special Consensus

Cahill is a Chicago native. “Mom was a great piano player, honky tonk, the great American songbook. Dad sang,” he says. They were also fans of Dixieland. His first instrument was harmonica, then accordion, before gravitating to banjo. “I was attracted to folk and acoustic music. That led me to the folk boom,” he says, citing artists such as Pete Seeger, the Kingston Trio, Colin Yarbrough and the Limeliters and Peter, Paul and Mary.

The band’s latest recording is Great Blue North, a paean to the songwriters of Canada. The music, featuring both well-known and obscure songs from Canadian writers, also features collaborations with some of Canada’s most notable bluegrass and folk musicians. “Special Consensus has toured regularly in Canada since our earliest days and counts many great Canadian bluegrass players and singers among our musical friends,” says Cahill.

“We go to Canada every year,” he continues. It was fellow banjoist Alison Brown who suggested Cahill and company dedicate an album to our neighbor to the north. Special Consensus records for Brown’s label, Compass Records. “She brought it up to us. Every other year we do a release for Compass.”

Up until the COVID-19 pandemic, that is. “The pandemic impacted us big-time. The band stayed afloat, but we did lose a couple members. One wanted to start his own band, and the pandemic expedited that. Another was in the non-vax camp,” says Cahill.

Still, there was music to make. Cahill says the reconstituted Special Consensus – Cahill on banjo, Dan Eubanks on bass, Greg Blake on guitar and mandolinist Michael Prewitt – worked up a couple Gordon Lightfoot songs, and when Brown suggested an entire recording of Canadian music, they embraced the idea whole-heartedly. “We came up with so many great songs narrowing it down was difficult,” he notes.

Great Blue North

Great Blue North

The album kicks off with “Snowbird,” made famous by Canadian chanteuse Anne Murray, featuring the band’s newest member, Blake, on lead vocals. Other tracks include the two Lightfoot tunes and Bruce Cockburn’s 90s hit “Mighty Trucks of Midnight.” Guests include Claire Lynch, an Alabama-raised and newly-minted Canadian who now calls Toronto home, frequent Special Consensus collaborator Rob Ickes on resophonic guitar, New Brunswick fiddler Ray Legere, and the trio of Ontario-bred fiddler April Verch, jazzgrass fiddle pioneer Darol Anger, and Brown, who join the band on a mashup of two traditional Canadian fiddle tunes. The Quebeçois tune “La Belle Catherine” and the Métis fiddle tune “Jack Rabbit Jump” are transformed into “Pretty Kate and the Rabbit.”

He’s effusive in his praise of Brown as both a musician and label exec. “Alison is the best producer on the planet. She considers each song like an album. There are no filler songs.

“I’m so grateful we’re on such a great label.”

Cahill favors a 1934 Gibson banjo with a new neck, but otherwise mostly original parts, for recording, and he uses a 1935 Gibson Kel Kroydon on the road. He says bluegrass virtuoso JD Crowe once told him, “Let the strings do the work.” He’s been a user and endorser for GHS Banjo Strings for more than 30 years, favoring PF155 medium light strings.

Ross Boissoneau is a regular contributor to Something Else! Reviews, Northern Express and Local Spins. He’s written for the All Music Guide, Jazziz and Progression Magazines, and is a member of the Downbeat Critics Poll.

Ross Boissoneau

One thought on “Bluegrass Band Going On A Half-Century

  1. Love this band! And was lucky enough to have caught them on a couple of their UK visits. My own personal favourite track is a hard call to make from so much great stuff! But because this one strikes such a raw note in my own memory I’ll go with; ‘She’s Waliking Through My Memory,’ from their 2005 album Everything’s Alright. Painful but I love it.
    Long may they continue!
    Frank D Howe

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