Greg Cahill of The Special Consensus

December 2006

Greg Cahill has been playing bluegrass banjo since the early ’70s, and founded The Special Consensus in 1975. “The Special C” are regular visitors to our shores, and over the years have seen a number of changes of personnel, with Greg at its helm, whilst maintaining that special bluegrass sound.

Greg has recorded 3 solo albums, and also released several instructional videos. He has also done much work to promote bluegrass music, taken the music to schools, and is currently the chairman of the IBMA.

The Special Consensus
The Special Consensus: Ron Spears, Greg Cahill, David Thomas, Justin Carbone

To coincide with their latest UK tour, we spoke to Greg about his work both within and outside of the band.

UKBG: The Special Consensus have been touring in various guises for over 30 years. How have you managed to keep the band fresh and interesting for so long?

GC: “I have been very fortunate to have had such great musicians and fine people in the band over the years. The musicians that have joined The Special C have all helped the band grow during their respective tenures and then usually move on to join bands based in a different geographic location, or to form their own band, or to change careers, etc. I think the key to keeping The Special C growing has been to find good musicians who have something of their own to contribute while having the ability to keep the band sound somewhat consistent. In other words, I don’t try to replace the person leaving the band with a clone but rather with another good musician who may bring something a little different to the band sound. Perhaps a different vocal range, or a different instrumental style, or a different songwriting style, etc. But they also know and appreciate the band repertoire and are willing to learn that material as well as to contribute new ideas and material.”

UKBG: The band adopt a healthy mix of old-fashioned bluegrass and new, exciting sounds. Is this something you deliberately try to create or is it an accidental consequence of having a wide range of ages and backgrounds in the group?

GC: “Both. When the band formed in Chicago in the 1970s, we did not initially tour out of the region and we were playing in clubs and venues that did not really have what we might call today a bluegrass audience. We had to create the audience by playing not only traditional bluegrass, which was most unfamiliar to the urban dwellers, but also by incorporating old rock and roll songs and swing tunes and even pop songs of the time into our repertoire (which these urban folks would hopefully recognise), performed in the bluegrass format. As times have changed and a greater bluegrass audience has evolved nationally and now internationally, we have actually been gravitating to a more traditional sound but with a “fresh” twist.

“Both Ron and Justin are excellent songwriters, I write instrumentals and David brings in songs with the more “modern” bluegrass sound, all of which makes for what we might call a “progressive traditional” band sound.”

UKBG: You’ve toured the UK quite a few times now. What have been your highlights in terms of venues and people you have met? Any particular places you are looking forward to visiting on this tour?

GC: “I believe this will be my ninth or tenth tour of the UK – the first was in the early 1990s and I now come over bi-annually, when we release a new recording. I can honestly say that I enjoy every place we visit – all the venues and all of the fine people I have met over the years. I have made some very good friends, many of whom have come to stay with me at my home.

“This is the wonderful thing about bluegrass music – we truly do become one big extended family through our mutual love of the music.”

UKBG: Are you surprised at the popularity of bluegrass music in the UK and Europe?

GC: “I must admit that I am consistently impressed with the musicianship of the bluegrass bands in the UK – and by the fact that there seems to be a group of pickers in virtually every town where we play. There seems to be a support band in most of these towns, and that is not always the case in the USA.”

UKBG: What are your thoughts on the current state of bluegrass music and where it is heading? What do you think of the direction bluegrass is being taken by the new breed of young bands like the How to Grow a Band, the Infamous Stringdusters etc?

GC: “I believe the music is alive and well and the future is bright. There are so many excellent young musicians and new bands forming, both nationally and internationally. The festivals offer fabulous artist rosters and I believe the overall quality of the music being performed by bands everywhere has “raised the bar” for the quality of bluegrass music in general.”

UKBG: You run a schools program to encourage youngsters to find out about and participate in bluegrass. Has this been successful? What kind of reaction do you get from the kids involved?

GC: “In 1984, I created an in-school presentation for students of all ages, called the Traditional American Music (TAM) Program, to introduce young people to this American-born form of traditional music. Of course this music has roots from your countries, which makes the presentation a study of geography, history and even a bit of physics (how does each instrument make that sound?) interspersed with a musical presentation. We continue to bring this presentation to schools every year and now the IBMA has created various training programs and written study guide materials to encourage other bluegrass bands to develop similar presentations. As former Chairperson of the Bluegrass in the Schools Committee of the IBMA, I worked with committee members and Nancy Cardwell of the IBMA staff to create a project that resulted in the Discover Bluegrass DVD. This presentation includes various segments of instructional units (history, old festival footage, description of the bluegrass instruments, harmony singing, etc.) by various bluegrass bands and musicians and is hosted by brilliant young musicians Ryan Holladay and Sierra Hull. Over 3000 of these DVDs have been sold to schools and libraries since its release in 2004. I believe our efforts have been quite successful and I must say that every presentation we have made over the years has been very well received by students of all ages.”

UKBG: As you are now chairman of the IBMA, how do you think the bluegrass industry should move forward to get newcomers and youngsters involved and keep the music alive?

GC: “I do think we have to continue to reach out to people young and old to keep the music growing. I agree with the oft-stated theory that once people actually hear bluegrass music they enjoy it. Our mission is to make sure we get the music heard by people everywhere and to keep bringing a younger audience to the events. The festivals are now including activities for young people and some even have workshops and stages for young musicians to encourage youth involvement. The availability of DVD/video instructional materials has also helped bring the learning process into the home and made the music more accessible.”

UKBG: For many years it seems bluegrass has relied on word of mouth to promote itself and has perhaps failed to gain a bigger audience as a consequence. Today, many new bands are using the web and sites like myspace as their main promotion tool – do you see an important role for the internet in helping bluegrass music thrive in the future?

GC: “I think the internet has been a critical factor in the recent growth of bluegrass music. Every medium you mentioned here makes the music more accessible and available to people all over the world, which certainly has not always been possible. I think it is essential for the professional bands to have a web site that at least includes information about the band and personnel, tour schedule, info about band recordings (and sound bytes) and downloadable photos. This makes it easier for people who see the band at a personal appearance to find the band elsewhere and to purchase recordings and for promoters to learn about the band without relying on sending materials through the postal mail. I also encourage the UK bluegrass musicians and audiences to visit the blog that Richard Hawkins has created, accessible through the EBMA site, to keep people outside of the USA informed about bluegrass events and developments with the ability to write personal comments and observations.”

Further information

For more information about Greg and The Special Consensus, visit the band’s website.