There’s a line in the title track of the latest Special Consensus album, Scratch Gravel Road, where the singer describes coming from a place where a “man can live his life away and never see the sun.” No doubt a familiar spot for most who dedicate their lives to making music, toiling away in obscurity and going unheard.
The lyric is perhaps just as befitting of the Special Consensus story. Founded in Chicago 37 years ago and touring almost as long, they’ve delivered 16 albums with 41 different members yet remained largely unknown outside the bluegrass world. Finally, this year they received their first Grammy nomination in the category of best bluegrass album.
Greg Cahill, Special C’s founder, fearless leader and banjo extraordinaire, chatted with CMT Edge about a wide range of topics including artistic validation, the creative process and stepping into the light as a Grammy nominee.
CMT Edge: Congratulations on the Grammy nod for Scratch Gravel Road. How does it feel?
Cahill: Well, we were pretty shocked. (laughs) I’m pretty amazed that we were even nominated. I mean, we did enjoy making that record, and I can’t say enough about Alison Brown, who produced us. She just brought out the best in all of us. And then to get the nomination was an honor, and it was shocking. We were ecstatic.
You have to feel validated in a way.
When the band started in the ‘70s, we didn’t get much credibility because we were based in Chicago. People said, “Man, if you’re not from the South, you don’t know what you’re doin’.” And so we just hung in there and did our own thing and inched our way along. To have a recording be nominated for a Grammy, to me that is a validation, and it’s a real shot in the arm for the band. That’s the ultimate.
Do you feel like you have a responsibility or something more to live up to now?
I do. … We’ve always gone in and, of course, always done our best and thought we chose the best material at the time and put our heart and soul into every recording, but there does come now a sense of responsibility. Like we really better be thinking, “What did we do differently on this recording?” or “How did we make it better?” I’ve been listening to it again just trying to absorb that.
But the creative process is a funny thing. If you think too much about how you’re doing it, you might end up killing something mystical and magical — the very thing that took you there in the first place.
I know exactly what you’re talking about. I think it’s more absorbing the feel of this and trusting your instincts. Trust yourself, work hard, but don’t slack off, that’s for sure.
Is there something you’d like people to know about this record who haven’t heard it and who are coming to it for the first time?
It’s really hard to put a tag on it. I think we just tried to make the best record possible. It was a labor of love. We really thought about it, and we really felt it. It wasn’t something where you go in and say, “It’s time to make a record. Let’s just do it.” We wanted to, at the end, have people say that they liked it. You know, reach people, touch people with it.
So here you are, a guy from the City of Big Shoulders, leading one of the most venerated bands in bluegrass. There’s a certain curiosity to that. Growing up in Chicago, did the blues figure into your playing?
Big time, big time. I started listening to the old blues guys who would come to town with just a guitar and maybe a guy sitting behind them playing snare. Leadbelly or Josh White. I used to go stand outside the windows when I was too young to get in the clubs just to hear Muddy Waters.
And then Eddy Clearwater, the Chief, got me to play on a recording. He was a blues guy, but he wanted banjo on it. So I went in, and I’m talking to him, and I find out then, man, Lonnie Brooks has done country albums! And all these blues guys, they grew up hearing country music on the radio! So they were just as influenced by the roots music, the country music, as I was by listening to blues! Really, in the end, to me jazz is to blues like bluegrass maybe is to country. Or vice versa. I think they’re so related.
And if you listen to enough of this stuff — and especially if you play it — you realize the distance between Hank Williams and Muddy Waters is about a nanometer.
Yeah! Exactly! Exactly! That’s what I’m feeling! So to me, all this makes perfect sense. They connect.
You got a song of yours on the record, “Jacklene.” Are you interested in doing more writing in the future?
Yeah. I’m always writing tunes. You know, I’m not so great with the lyrics. I mean, I’ve tried that, and I was not satisfied with what I’d come up with. But I can write music for songs with lyrics. I’m always trying to come up with something different or put different ideas down. I’ve got this list of things I want to learn [but] I don’t get nearly the time I would like to have to practice. Some days, I don’t even play now because of the business and the travel and everything else. But my list keeps growing instead of shrinking. But that to me is the beauty of it. I’d probably curl up and die if I felt like, “OK, I’ve learned it.”
How rehearsed are you before you go in to record?
I don’t think we ever went into the studio and ended up with the same arrangement that we walked in with. (laughs)
Where do you come down on the whole traditional vs. modern debate in bluegrass? How do you reconcile tradition with breaking new ground and not just playing it the way the guys who came before you did?
I think we see ourselves kind of bridging the gap almost between the hardcore traditional and the jam bands and some of the more progressive stuff. Some of the young bands are totally doing their own thing, and it’s great. The bluegrass tent, the umbrella, is expanding, thank God. So it will keep the music alive.
What we’re trying to do is still have a traditional sound but with new material with a fresh perspective. You know, we don’t talk about going back to the cabin on the hill because none of us are from the cabin on the hill. We talk about how we “Shoulda Took a Train” [a song title from Scratch Gravel Road] when we felt jacked around! (laughs)
What’s next for Special Consensus?
We got a concept album in mind, but we really can’t share the details yet. We just want to keep doing what we’re doing — and doing it right.