Greg Cahill is, in so many ways, the embodiment of bluegrass music: honest, friendly, and in it not because he wants to be, necessarily, but because he has to be. I was fortunate to reach him at his home on a day that he was, as he says, unpacking his suitcase, doing the laundry, and packing it all in again in order to head back out on the road. Through it all, he tries to be an ambassador for the music and, frankly, you couldn’t find a better one.
Glen Herbert: You’ve been doing this for quite a while, haven’t you?
Greg Cahill: Special C was formed in 1975, so this is year number 38. I had played in a few other bands before that, but I’ve been making my living at it for 38 years, between playing with bands, doing studio stuff, teaching and, you know, all things musical.
What keeps you going?
You know, I could do without the travelling, but I really still love playing the music. It’s one of those things that you can’t put down. [laughs] It just keeps coming out! I keep thinking I’m going to slow down, and I keep telling my wife I’m going to slow down, and then other opportunities arise and I think, “Well, we’ll just try this, and we’ll do that.” I still get up in the morning thinking about what I could have played better last night, or with another idea for a new tune. You know, I guess it just doesn’t go away.
When do you feel you are most successful at what you do?
Oh, man, there are so many different times. I don’t know if it’s about success really, it’s more about loving the music and loving what I do. Like if we have a really good show. Or if I give a really good lesson and share what people have shared with me. I feel good about that. In the studio, if I feel we came up with a really good recording. I feel good about that. The good thing about playing music is that you feel good a lot of the time, because you get to play music, and make a lot of great friends, and meet a lot of nice, really good people.
Are there recordings that stand out for you, from your career with Special Consensus, that you feel are particularly special?
Of course, at the time we all hope that the recording that just came out is he best. But there are a few. Blue Skies is one of them. That configuration of the band was real powerful, and that’s the configuration that played at the Grand Ol Opry. But some of the more recent ones, too. Signs was good. And our current one, Scratch Gravel Road, I think is one of the strongest, and it was also nominated for a Grammy this year for best bluegrass recording. We got to go to the Grammies and that was a really great experience. So, there are some that I guess are stands outs, but oftentimes, six months later after you come out with something, you think ‘ah, I could have done this better.’ That never ends.
What do you feel distinguishes the music of Special Consensus?
I think we try to have what you might call a neo-traditional sound. There are only four of us and we’re trying to put out this wall of sound, just four guys with acoustic instruments and four voices.
And we try to come up with new material. Like with Scratch Gravel Road, we contacted all my buds from Nashville—we’re in Nashville a lot, and some of the guys live there—and they responded with some great songs and we had a hard time choosing. But I think it’s about trying to have quality stuff, but the bar keeps rising in this genre. People are finally starting to take seriously thanks to all the social media that makes it more accessible to people, especially young people.
You know the tent of bluegrass music is ever expanding, and that’s good. A lot of the folks who were traditionalists were so afraid that it would get watered down like country music did with rock and roll. And they thought it was bad to move to Nashville, and they thought we were going to lose the sense of bluegrass music. But that’s not so. You know there are plenty of great young traditional bluegrass bands coming out, and a lot of great jam bands and a lot of great what you might call progressive bands.
We’re trying to be in the middle of all that. I love Flatt and Scruggs singing “Blue Ridge Cabin Home,” it’s one of my all-time favorite songs. But, that’s not my life. You know, I don’t go back to the cabin. We try to find songs that are more about how we live today, and reflect our lifestyles but yet keep that traditional sound.
We also try to vary the sound. We have at least a swing song or two in our sets and on each recording. We also have a gospel song, usually a quartet; most recently the last few have been a capella ones. And we just try to reach out to everyone in the audience, maybe with an old country song, like “Sea of Heartbreak,” an old Don Gibson song that’s on the new recording.
I guess it’s just like “This is what we have, and this is what we have to offer, we like it and we hope you like it too.” You know we’ve done a whole lot of school programs over the years. We used to go in regularly. We’d do Louisville, Kentucky, for five days, and we’d do four, five, and six shows a day. A lot of shows just to introduce kids to bluegrass music. And we also went into some pretty hard-core inner city neighborhoods in the Chicago area and some other cities. Sometimes the guys would say, “oh my God, they’re going to hate us.” And I’d just say, you know what, we love this music and we should just go play the music and show them, you know that this is what we love to do and we hope you like it. And one hundred percent of the time we’d go into those schools and at the end of the presentation those hard-core kids would be up asking us for autographs and wanting to chat. I think it’s just that we all just genuinely love the music and what to share it, do the best we can, and we hopefully are coming up with something that might appeal to everyone in the audience.
So in some of those instances, such as those in Chicago, you are playing to audiences that have no idea what you’re doing.
That’s right. They’ve probably never even seen a mandolin. They may have the vague concept of a banjo because of reruns of the Beverly Hillbillies or something. No idea.
That must be an amazing experience.
It is. We use to do it more than we do now, but we’d oftentimes do it in conjunction with our evening programs when we were in the area. That’s what we did around the country and even internationally. We’ve done shows and presentations for kids in Scotland and Ireland and South America. And it just feels right to share the music.
We’re always trying to be ambassadors of bluegrass. And it’s really true; most of the time when people really hear it—and don’t make fun of it or don’t ignore it because of what they think it is—they really like it. You know, the level of musicianship in bluegrass music is pretty phenomenal in my books. And some of the young people coming out are multi-instrumentalists, and they’re really good on anything they do. And that’s why touring country artists are hiring bluegrass musicians to be in their bands. Because they’re great musicians.
I also think that one of the things that sets the band apart is how clean the performances are. One reviewer noted that your playing is as “shiny as a newly minted penny.” I think that’s very true.
And that’s something we really try to work on. In the vocals, making sure everybody’s got every note in the right place. And the playing we leave up to each member of the band. The main thing is the rhythm. I mean, just being locked in and getting the groove. You can play what you will, but you’ve got to keep the melody in there so people will know what the heck song it is.
A lot of people go way out. Which is fine. I’ve recorded on swing albums with jazz guys, and that’s just great and I love doing it. But I don’t play some of those licks on a traditional sounding bluegrass song because, well, it just doesn’t fit, I don’t think. Some bands base their style on that and that’s great too. But our style is more in the traditional and the progressive traditional, I guess you’d call it.
You know, we’ve had 41 members since 1975; I’m the only original guy left. Part of the prerequisite is that you love the music. And I’ve been very fortunate to have some really good people, as well as good musicians, come through the band [including Josh Williams, Chris Jones, and Paul Kramer].
You’ve got a song about Bill Monroe on this recording. Why now? You’ve been doing this a long time.
The song was pitched to me a few years ago and at that time I liked it because, not to sound egoistical in any way shape or form, but some people have said “you’ve had as many people as Bill Monroe come through the band.” Which is not true—he had a couple hundred. But at the time that I had the song there were all these other songs about Bill Monroe. There was “Bill Monroe for Breakfast” and “Bill Monroe for Lunch” [chuckles] you know, Bill Monroe for this and that. So I didn’t’ want to do another Bill Monroe thing then. But I liked the song and then one of the guitar players in the band at the time said “hey, we should maybe think about this other arrangement.” So we worked on it, and he tweaked it pretty well and I thought “That’s it! That’s how to present that song.”
And then meeting with Alison Brown, our producer and owner of Compass Records, and just a wonderful musician herself, we talked about how we could make that song special. Because it was a special song. It was a thing about all the stuff he went through. And we though we could take it even further by bringing back a couple Special Consensus alums, as Bill Monroe often did in his show and on his recordings. Chris [Jones] and Josh [Williams] are quite well-known in their own right. And we thought that would be fun. And Stuart Duncan, who has played on several of our recordings before. So it was just a tribute to the music, a tribute to Bill Monroe, a way to tell the story again about bluegrass music. And sure enough the song was nominated for recorded event of the year by the IBMA.
But the thing about bluegrass music is that it really is like a bit extended family. You go to these different places—and that’s the part I would miss about travelling—there are so many friends and so many good people. It’s all about when you’re all in the room at the same time, appreciating the music together. Jethro Burns was a good friend, the mandolin maestro, and I lived three blocks from him for about eight years before he passed. I played some shows with him, and he wrote liner notes for one of our recordings. And he had a great line which was, “It’s just good to have you in the room.” And that’s what bluegrass music to me is all about; just everybody—the musicians and the audience—all everybody sharing the experience. It’s just cool.