The Special Consensus "Scratch Gravel Road" Compass Records
Having recently celebrated 35 years leading one of the most recognizable names in bluegrass, with the release of "Scratch Gravel Road" The Special Consensus' Greg Cahill brings forth yet another line-up of his 'school of bluegrass.'
In addition to Cahill's obvious 5-string mastery, the current edition of The Special C features two holdovers from the roster that contributed half the tracks to the previous "35" release. Rick Faris continues on mandolin and does a fair bit of the lead and harmony singing. David Thomas lays down the bottom end on bass, sings some lead and even more of the harmony parts, with great distinction.
The newcomer this time out is Alabamian Dustin Benson. Playing guitar and singing, Benson has played with many other bluegrass bands including Valerie Smith, Larry Stephenson, and Carolina Road.
Cahill recently shared that "it has always been a conscious decision...to keep the same feel for the music (especially the same rhythmic feel) but to have new members bring their own sound and sense to the table. Every band has its own rhythm and I do try to keep that consistent with Special C - rhythm and timing are all important."
I've been a fan of the group for many years, although I wasn't an immediate convert.
The first time I experienced The Special Consensus at a festival, I wasn't impressed. Perhaps I caught the line-up of the day- this was around 1998- on an off weekend. I found their performance simply boring; really, there was no other word for it. The songs didn't grab me, their stage presence seemed stiff...and hey, maybe it was just me, but had that been my only exposure to the group, I would have long ago dismissed them from mind.
A couple summers later, it was an entirely different experience. In support of their "25th Anniversary" set this time out, the band- fronted by Josh Williams- and featuring Chris Walz and Tim Dishman- blew me away with their energy, vocal sound and instrumental mastery. Realizing most everything in bluegrass is subjective, I didn't think I could more enjoy a Special C performance.
I was further intrigued that summer to learn that two of my 'new' favourite singers- Robbie Fulks and Dallas Wayne- had previously been in the group. (By the way, I'm still looking for a copy of "Hey, Y'all"- the Special C album Dallas Wayne was on- so...) Subsequently, their string of Pinecastle albums became listening favourites with almost each one raising the bar a bit over the collection that came before it.
A couple years ago we brought The Special Consensus to town and this line-up, the current minus Benson set, was surprisingly even stronger than the format I had fallen for a decade before and the contemporary edition of the group is just as impressive on disc. While I'm not one to listen while wearing rose-coloured headphones, I am admittedly predisposed to enjoying The Special C.
On the strength of the opening three tracks, "Scratch Gravel Road" would be favourably reviewed. Old New Straitsville Moonshine Run, Monroe, and Sea of Heartbreak are as fine an opening salvo as has been recently heard. Featuring lead vocals from all three members not named Cahill- and some guests- the songs serve as notice that the vocal emphasis within The Special Consensus is as powerful as ever.
Written by Mark Brinkman and Tony Rackely, "Old New Straitsville Moonshine Run" doesn't break new ground; it is simply the populist-type of bluegrass song that will forever enliven a concert performance. As such, it kicks-off the album with flair. Thomas' vocal performance here, as well as on Harley Allen's A Good Problem to Have, and the a cappella On My Way to the Kingdom Land provides evidence that he is undoubtedly one of the finest assets a bluegrass band could possess.
Special C alumni pay a visit with Josh Williams and Chris Jones contributing mightily to Monroe, one of the best of the recent crop of Monroe-tributes. Written by Craig Market, the band's performance here is spot-on in its treatment of Monroe-influenced material; the kick-off reminds me of Heavy Traffic Ahead, but you may hear things differently. Monroe is a wonderful song, full of lyrical and instrumental references to Bill Monroe's history, phrasing, songs, and attitude- accurately referenced here as "Monroe's doctrine."
Faris and Benson share the lead on Don Gibson's old-time classic Sea of Heartbreak.
This combination of fresh songs, reinvention, and seasoned familiarity serves as an ideal way to announce the presence of the refurbished Special Consensus. Following these up with another nine performances that equal- and in at least one place surpasses- this excellent introduction makes "Scratch Gravel Road" the strongest bluegrass album I've heard thus far from 2012.
Billy Smith's Trouble Let Me Be, sung here by Faris, is a loping country-influenced piece that serves as further evidence of the group's versatility. Past member of The Special C Ryan Roberts contributes My Memories of You, a plaintive country song admirably sung by Thomas. No Special C album is complete without a Cahill instrumental, and this time out Jacklene stands out; augmented by Alison Brown's banjo, this tune goes into overdrive early and stays in the red for the entirety of its two-and a half minutes.
Despite all these highlights, the best performance on the album is saved for its penultimate song. Sunday Morning Without You, sung by Benson with harmony contributions from Thomas and Faris, is a stellar bluegrass performance. Benson's guitar picking is without fault, with his break mid-song serving to further unify the arrangement. This is a gentle presentation, without fiery flashes or vocal dramatics, and provides support to the 'less is more' argument.
I've enjoyed many of The Special Consensus' previous 15 albums; without doubt, Cahill has managed a string of consistency that most bandleaders would envy. Whether it is the sound production provided by Alison Brown, a particularly ripe crop of songs, or just the strength and confidence of the current line-up, "Scratch Gravel Road" is quite possibly the most complete Special C album I've encountered, and I've gone back an re-listened to hours of their music before writing that statement.