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The Dean of Bluegrass University

After 35 years and 44 members, Greg Cahill's Special Consensus is among the music's most important institutions.

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When Greg Cahill formed the Special Consensus in 1975, he was 28 and had already been playing banjo for more than ten years—though for the first few he unwittingly wore his thumb pick backward. When he decided to give it a go as a professional bluegrass musician, he says, it was "to get it out of my system and to learn how to play right." He committed to a year.

By the end of 1976 he still hadn't gotten it out of his system, so he figured he'd give it another year. "One more year" became a sort of mantra, and he still uses it when he tells his story—but Cahill hasn't thought that way in ages. Now 63, he's been a professional musician for 35 years.

And he still leads the Special Consensus, which has become one of the longest-running and best-respected outfits in bluegrass history. Like many venerable bluegrass bands it's made the most of the inevitable turnover—44 musicians had passed through its ranks at last count—by evolving into a sort of finishing school for promising young players. Cahill's also wrapping up a three-year term this fall as president of the bluegrass community's trade group, the International Bluegrass Music Association. The industry's heart is in Nashville, and the music is a much bigger deal in the southeast than it is in the Chicago area, where Cahill has spent most of his life—he currently lives in Oak Lawn—but these days he's at the center of the bluegrass world.

Greg Cahill Special Consensus

For the first two decades of the group's existence, that kind of success seemed like a pretty distant prospect. Back then, when Cahill told himself "one more year" it was an expression of faith. "There was always that one really great gig that came up for next year," he says, "and it was like, 'Well, surely after we play there we'll really have it made.'" Purists dismissed the Special Consensus, he says, as "that band from Chicago trying to play bluegrass." But the combo's recordings, especially over the past decade, prove that it's playing the real thing, and at a very high level.

Born on the south side in 1946, Cahill grew up without hearing American roots music. But like so many other musicians of his generation, he got caught up in the 60s folk revival. He heard recordings by Pete Seeger in high school in Oak Lawn, and the summer after he graduated in 1964 he got his first banjo. He started coming into the city to hang out on Maxwell Street, where he was drawn to bluesmen like Robert Nighthawk, or to loiter outside blues clubs he was too young to enter, listening to the likes of Muddy Waters and B.B. King through the doors. That fall he left for Saint Mary's College in Winona, Minnesota, where he quickly formed a folk-revival trio called the Rye Town Singers, playing banjo and guitar; they gigged mostly at local pizza parlors and coffee houses. Then in '66 one of his bandmates played him Foggy Mountain Banjo, Lester Flatt & Earl Scruggs's only instrumental album, and his days as a Kingston Trio-style folkie were numbered. "It was the first time I'd heard bluegrass, and that was it," Cahill says. "From then on I was on a quest to figure it out."

It would be a long quest, though, because he knew nobody who could teach him. When he graduated in 1968 with a degree in econ (his dad was a CPA), he had trouble finding work, in part because the draft was hanging over his head. "I couldn't get a job anywhere because they knew I was going into the army," he says. "I was opposed to the war, but not enough that I would leave the country." Rather than wait around to get sent to Vietnam, he swallowed hard and enlisted. He never shipped out, though—during combat training at Fort Benning a simulated bomb damaged his hearing, and the resulting tinnitus kept him in Georgia. "There was plenty of bluegrass music around there, and I was hearing it all the time," he says. "But I still didn't have anyone to show me the right stuff."

In 1970 he moved back to his parents' place in Oak Lawn and then to Evanston, where he pursued a career in social work, focusing on drug abuse. He took informal lessons from the Greater Chicago Bluegrass Band's banjo player, Richard Hood, who recommended records to him. "That's how I learned," says Cahill. "Dropping the needle, slowing the 33 down to 16 RPM. I just painstakingly listened to every note that Earl Scruggs was playing."

By 1974 he'd earned a graduate degree from UIC and become director of a consortium of agencies called the Youth Network Council. But the bluegrass bug didn't let go. "I'd go to these meetings," he says, "and I couldn't get my mind off the banjo. I'm sitting there playing the roll patterns on my knee."

At that point he had a band of his own, albeit with a lineup so unstable it barely made sense to think of it as a band. Cahill thinks they might've gone by ten different names, but he only remembers one, the Cook County Doo-Dah Boys. In 1975, when he and bassist Mark Edelstein decided to try playing music full-time, it precipitated yet another lineup overhaul: the members unwilling to quit their day jobs left and were quickly replaced.

Today the Special Consensus is a relatively traditional bluegrass quartet, with banjo, guitar, mandolin, and upright bass, but in its early going the band had five to seven members and often included nontraditional instruments like drums and electric guitar. Cahill threw himself into the music with gusto, practicing eight hours a day, and the band hustled for gigs, playing frequently on a strip of Lincoln Avenue north of Webster that was packed with venues like Wise Fools Pub, Orphans, Holstein's, Lilly's, Irish Eyes, Somebody Else's Trouble, and the Clearwater Saloon.

Within a couple years the band decided to look for help setting up road shows, but the friends who pitched in didn't always do the best job of routing. "The first weekend we were booked out of town we about died," says Cahill. "We traveled in two Datsun station wagons that were packed to the gills with sound equipment and instruments. We played a lunchtime concert downtown, and then we drove straight through to Coffeyville, Kansas, which was an ungodly long drive, right on the Oklahoma border. We got there the next day in enough time to take a shower and then go play. We played our evening set and then drove straight to Springfield, Illinois, played our show, and drove straight home."

In 1979 they cut their first album, Special Consensus Bluegrass Band, beginning a cycle of sporadic releases and jerry-rigged tours. Cahill started attracting influential allies, though, who would eventually help smooth the group's way: legendary bluegrass country mandolinist Jethro Burns, for instance, turned out to live just a few blocks from him in Evanston and quickly became a friend and mentor, appearing on one of Cahill's solo records and writing liner notes for a Special Consensus album. The band also began attracting increasingly impressive musicians when it had vacancies to fill—acclaimed singer-guitarist Chris Jones moved from New York to join in 1981 and stuck around for four years. A young Robbie Fulks, years before his first solo album, played guitar from 1988 till '90. "Being thrown into it with Greg was an invaluable experience," he says. "Learning it and coming to grips with it, and getting comfortable with it—that this is what it's like, and you can do it and live with it and make it work. I think the stamina of what Greg does is pretty phenomenal. He was inspiring in that way."

At that point the Special Consensus was in the black, but only barely. "We were still scraping by, living on a couple hundred bucks a month," Cahill says. "Every year we'd do the income tax and [my father] would say, 'Good God, how can you live like that?' And I'd say, 'One more year, dad, one more year.'"

It might seem like the obvious move would've been to head to Nashville, but Cahill earned an important chunk of his income in Chicago playing for commercials—in the hub of the bluegrass universe, he'd no longer be the first-call player for that sort of work. He went to great lengths to keep his name at the top of that list. "I remember I was way the heck up near the Canadian border, north of Duluth, and they had to have a jingle done the next day in Chicago," he says. "The next day we were booked at a college in Minneapolis. They rented me a car, and after the concert I drove all the way down to Minneapolis and got there around six in the morning. I took a flight to Chicago and they picked me up in a limo and drove me downtown to the studio. I did my part in 45 minutes, turned around and went back to the airport, and flew to Minneapolis."

The band's slow and steady progress continued. By the early 90s they were touring Europe more or less annually and had made half a dozen albums. In 1996 they released their first record on prestigious North Carolina bluegrass label Pinecastle, and two years later Cahill was elected to the IBMA board as an artists' and composers' representative, a position that multiplied his industry connections. At the start of its third decade, the Special Consensus had become a popular and highly regarded bluegrass band, with a reputation for producing outstanding alumni. Joining Jones and Fulks on that list are country singer and guitarist Dallas Wayne (who played bass from '89 till '91), fiddler Al Murphy ('90-'91), and mandolinists Josh Williams ('99-'04) and Ron Spears ('04-'07), among many others.

For the past 20 years Fulks has been watching the group's development from afar. "When that record with 'Today Has Been a Lonesome Day' came out a couple of years ago, I put it on and my wife said, 'This sounds like a record that you'd buy—I can't believe you were in this band,'" he says. "And I was absolutely blown away by that record. The stuff that we were doing just doesn't compare; he's traded up at every chance he's gotten."

Cahill is the only member of the current Special Consensus lineup who lives here; mandolinist Rick Faris, bassist David Thomas, and guitarist Ryan Roberts are all in Nashville. Last December they cut six new tracks for an album meant to celebrate the group's 35th year, but owner Tom Riggs fell ill and in February Pinecastle closed up shop. Cahill's IBMA connections led to him to fellow board member and banjoist Alison Brown, who signed the band to her Compass imprint and released the 15th Special Consensus album, 35, in May. The new songs are complemented by six tracks from the band's out-of-print back catalog, dating back to 1983.

The Special Consensus celebrates the release of 35 with a concert at FitzGerald's on July 21. On October 23 at the Old Town School of Folk Music, Cahill will throw the band an anniversary party, a tradition he's upheld every five years since its 15th. He assembles as many past and present members as he can—for the October show he expects at least 30—and they play a couple songs from each record in chronological order, swapping out players as they go so that the lineup onstage is as close as possible to the lineup on record. It's a little like a rolling class reunion.

"I was always thinking, 'I just love playing,'" Cahill says, "and my whole concept was that I hope I can be a full-time musician. And then to realize, holy cow, I've been doing it for 35 years. It's been my life. I guess I really am a musician."   

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