About Special Consensus
One of the Midwest's leading bluegrass groups, the Special Consensus have also proved to be one of the most enduring, beginning in the mid-'70s and still performing and recording in the 2010s. Led by banjo player Greg Cahill (whose work would earn him the Distinguished Achievement Award from the International Bluegrass Music Association), Special Consensus struck an easy balance between the classic sound of traditional bluegrass and the more progressive approach that came with innovative artists like the New Grass Revival and Béla Fleck. While perfectly happy to approach both classic and contemporary material, the Special Consensus have created a body of work that's fresh while honoring the founding fathers of bluegrass, and under Cahill's leadership, a small army of talented pickers have helped maintain their reputation for exceptional instrumental skill and stellar harmonies.
Born in Chicago in 1946, Greg Cahill discovered folk music in the early '60s, and in his teens he learned to play the accordion and the banjo. A hitch in the Army took Cahill to Georgia, and after an injury sidelined him from duty for a while, he used his spare time to study Earl Scruggs' recordings and attend bluegrass festivals in the Peach State. After returning to Chicago, Cahill studied social work and got a job with the Cook County Department of Public Aid, but during his spare time he fell in with a handful of friends who also loved acoustic music. During an open jam at the University of Chicago's Folk Festival in 1973, Cahill played some tunes with several other amateur pickers, and they formed a band to play for fun in their spare time. Cahill and bassist Marc Edelstein dubbed the new combo the Cook County Doo-Dah Boys, but it wasn't long before they adopted a less silly moniker, the Special Consensus, taken from a state of positive physical and spiritual togetherness described in the writing of Carlos Castaneda. (It was the '70s.) Cahill and Edelstein were joined by Jim Iberg on guitar, Jim Hale on fiddle, and Jeremy Raven on mandolin in the first edition of the Special Consensus, who began playing out in 1975. Cahill took a year off from work and school to focus on his banjo playing, and as his skills increased, so did the band's fortunes, and they were soon playing regularly in the Chicago area.
In 1979, the group cut their first album, The Special Consensus Bluegrass Band, which was released by the local Tin Ear Records label. By that time, the group had been stripped down to a quartet, with Cahill and Edelstein accompanied by Ed Walsh on guitar and Mark Weiss on mandolin. Personnel changes would become commonplace with Special Consensus, and in a 2017 interview, Cahill said that 46 different musicians had been part of the band at one time or another. When the Special Consensus next released an LP, 1983's Blue Northerns, Cahill was the only original member still on board, with guitarist Chris Jones, mandolinist Paul Kramer, and bassist John Rice as his bandmates. Jones would go on to a successful solo career, and he and Kramer both enjoyed lucrative sideline gigs in session work. In 1984, Cahill worked with educators to create the Traditional American Music Program, designed to teach children about the history of American acoustic music. In 1986, the Special Consensus signed with the Kentucky-based bluegrass label Turquoise Records; their first album for the imprint, Freight Train Boogie, was a lively mix of covers and originals, featuring Dennis White on guitar, Tim Wilson on mandolin, and Scott Salak on bass. For 1989's A Hole in My Heart, Robbie Fulks replaced guitarist Dennis White; after leaving the group, Fulks would become one of the leading lights of the Chicago alt-country scene. 1990's Hey Y'All, recorded in Chicago and including a bluegrass revision of "Viva Las Vegas," included Martin Marrone on guitar, Al Murphy on fiddle, and Dallas Wayne on bass. Wayne left the band in 1991 to form the country band Dallas Wayne & the Dim Lights, who enjoyed great success in Finland. 1993's Green Rolling Hills (with new guys Don Stiernberg on mandolin and Darren Wilcox on bass) would be the group's last album for Turquoise Records, and 1996's Strong Enough to Bend found them jumping to Pinecastle Records, one of America's most well-established bluegrass labels. That album documented Special Consensus' first co-ed lineup, with bassist Diana Phillips performing alongside Cahill, guitarist Bobby Burns, and Colby Maddox on mandolin. The group wrapped up the 20th century with 1998's Our Little Town, which introduced two new accompanists: Chris Walz on guitar and Andrea Roberts on bass.
The Special Consensus had begun working together in 1985, and in the year 2000 Pinecastle and the group celebrated with the release of the album 25th Anniversary, and Greg Cahill and Chris Walz welcomed new players Josh Williams (mandolin) and Tim Dishman (bass). Guitarist Jamie Clifton took over for Chris Walz for the sessions that produced 2002's Route 10. Cahill had a whole new band on deck when he recorded 2005's Everything's Alright, and for this album the banjo master teamed up with guitarist Justin Carbone, mandolinist Ron Spears, and bassist Tres Nugent. Nugent was out and bassist David Thomas was in by the time Special Consensus dropped 2007's The Trail of Aching Hearts. 2008 saw the group release Signs, with Ashby Frank signing on as the band's new mandolin player. It would prove to be their last album for Pinecastle, and they teamed up with the roots music label Compass Records for 2011's 35; once again, the album introduced a new lineup, with Cahill and Thomas sharing the stage with mandolin man Rick Faris and guitarist Ryan Roberts, as well as a number of guests, including former members Chris Jones, Dallas Wayne, John Rice, and Colby Maddox. Dustin Benson took over on guitar from Ryan Roberts for 2012's Grammy-nominated Scratch Gravel Road, and Dan Eubanks replaced bassist David Thomas for 2014's Country Boy: A Bluegrass Tribute to John Denver. The Denver tribute also included guest appearances from Jim Lauderdale, Rhonda Vincent, Peter Rowan, and Buddy Spicher. Cahill, Faris, and Eubanks brought aboard a new mandolin player, Nick Dumas, for 2016's Long I Ride; the title track was written by former group member Robbie Fulks. 2018's Rivers and Roads marked an unusual milestone for the Special Consensus -- for the first time, they recorded two albums in a row with the same membership. Also contributing to the recordings were Molly Tuttle, 10 String Symphony, Alison Brown, and former John Hartford associate Mark Schatz. The LP won the Album of the Year prize from the International Bluegrass Music Association, and a track from the LP, "Squirrel Hunters," was voted Bluegrass Instrumental Performance of the Year; the album was also nominated for a Grammy Award. ~ Mark Deming