"Chicago Barn Dance"
I trace the path my brothers laid before me
Swapped a record for the oil on my shoes
Now my eyes burn from the sting
And a fiddle haunts my dreams
And a lonely song is playing-it's called, the East Chicago Blues.
-"East Chicago Blues," Robbie Fulks
The southern dysphoria to northern states is well-recorded in history books, and Bill Monroe's journey has been documented here and there, including his work on the WLS National Barn Dance and his 1946 invention of bluegrass music, captured in a Chicago recording studio. Robbie Fulks has put the story to song, and (I would suggest) generously gifted it and an accompanying very strong vocal performance to Special Consensus' latest long player.
Forgive me for the ramble, but as a wee, young roots listener in 2000, I was thrilled and no little bit shocked to see Robbie Fulks' name on the back of my Special C 25th Anniversary t-shirt purchased at a long-ago bluegrass festival. I recall thinking, The "She Took A Lot of Pills (and Died)" guy? A bluegrasser? Once again, the musical trails of alt-country (whatever that is), bluegrass, and OMFUG artfully collided.
Fast forward to May, 2020 and the arrival of the new Special Consensus album and its initial late-night play. I'm listening away, and a couple songs in my ears further perk when I recognize Fulks' distinctive voice, phrasing, and manner ambling through the "East Chicago Blues." A welcome return, if only for one song. And a fine song it is, capturing the forced opportunity that a 'hog-eyed, country boy' found once the inspired path of musician and bandleader presented itself. The near-spoken bridge is especially affecting.
Three paragraphs: one song. Time to amp up the conciseness.
We've come to expect significant quality from Special Consensus over the past many years, but especially the last fifteen. Grammy nominees and frequent IBMA award nominees and winners, Special C has-at long last-ascended to the top of their bluegrass world.
In their 45th year now, banjoist Greg Cahill has shepherded the group to increasingly impressive levels, especially since joining forces with Compass Records in 2010. Whatever magic Alison Brown et al sprinkled around the group had the desired effect, and every couple years for the last decade we have been gifted an absolute treat from the band. "Chicago Barn Dance" is no exception.
A bit of a concept album, "Chicago Barn Dance" celebrates not only Special C's 45th year but also Cahill's hometown's musical connections to country and bluegrass music history. All the songs are either about (if peripherally, in the case of "Looking Out My Back Door") Chicago or written by folk from the area.
Bluegrassifying choice covers-"I Hope Gabriel Likes My Music"-made famous by Stuff Smith and Louis Armstrong, who lived in Chicago for a time-Steve Goodman's "City of New Orleans", and "Sweet Home Chicago"-certainly enliven the recording and provide immediate familiarity. But it is the new, original numbers that elevate this record.
"I Am The City," written and sung by bass player Dan Eubanks, is a pretty terrific number, one that made me believe I had heard it before: immediately engaging in the way a long-ago heard song triggers a memory or three. The stellar Fulks song, as well as the number that bookends the album, "Chicago Barn Dance" (written by frequent Compass-collaborators Becky Buller, Missy Raines, and Alison Brown) provides the album with its historical context.
The a cappella gospel showcase "Won't That Be A Happy Time" appears to be included as testimony for the Special C's vocal prowess, which is considerable. Taking the lead is the band's most recent addition, Nate Burie, and with everyone singing their parts to perfection, this one has IBMA recognition written all over it.
Equally impressive is long-term member of Special C Rick Faris' lead on the majority of the songs: time to give him some IBMA love, I do believe. Sung by guitarist Faris, "Sweet Home Chicago," "Lake Shore Drive,"-a song I hadn't previously encountered, but one with significance to Chicagoland types via the band Aliotta Haynes & Jeremiah-and "I Hope Gabriel Likes My Music" become traditional-sounding bluegrass songs: their transformation is complete.
Aside from Fulks, a handful of guests appear including Becky Buller and Michael Cleveland doubling up on "Chicago Barn Dance." Patrick McAvinue and Mike Barnett provide twin fiddles to the Tin Pan Alley classic, "My Kind of Town;" presented as an instrumental, Cahill and Brown also double up the banjos. Rob Ickes brings his Dobro to "Looking Out My Back Door."
Reflecting Chicago's long-established connection to Americana roots music, "Chicago Barn Dance" is a wonderful addition to an already strong slate of 2020 bluegrass. Here's to another 45 years of Special Consensus.
These hands of mine are cut from hauling timber,
And a thousand barrels rolled 'cross the steam house floor
These hands make a fire, when they grip the wood and wire,
This old mandolin makes music like no one has heard before.
And each evening as the sun slips down the skyline
I send some lonesome blues into the night
Somewhere beyond the stars, I see a curtain rise,
And a west Kentucky farm boy steps out into the light.