Graduating from the school of Special Consensus

In its 45 year history, Special Consensus has served as the launching pad for the careers of many other players who have become instrumental figures in the bluegrass world. 

Chris Jones played with Special C from 1981-1985. Today he leads his own band, Chris Jones & the Night Drivers, who collectively have won 16 IBMA Awards. 

“I was playing in the band the first time Special Consensus played the Station Inn in Nashville in the early 1980s,” Jones recalls. “To our shock, Bill Monroe showed up with Dee Presley (Elvis’ stepmother) as his date. Needless to say that made us pretty nervous. I sat at their table for a while, and Bill was interested in the Chicago connection because he had lived there in the 1930s with his brothers. He was really enjoying telling us stories about the WLS Barn Dance, where he and his brother Charlie were dancers, and the brothers’ oil refinery jobs in northern Indiana. He was quick to point out that he was much better at his refinery job than Charlie was—a better dancer, too. We didn’t know until later that Bill liked to be asked to sit in and probably would have. We were too intimidated to even bring it up.”

Dallas Wayne, a Special C alum bassist from 1988-1992, wears many hats including singer/songwriter/producer, and is a radio announcer on SiriusXM Radio at Willie’s Roadhouse.

One of his favorite memories was “possibly bluegrass music’s first stage diving incident.” The band was on the main stage at Winfield playing a Saturday night show. 

“After playing our last song, Freight Train Boogie, Robbie Fulks dives off the 6 foot stage into the arena, not realizing we might have to do an encore,” Wayne recalls. 

“The crowd wants one more, so Robbie makes his way over to the backstage entrance without his pass. The security guard doesn’t realize he came from the stage and won’t let him back on stage without his pass.”

“He had attached his back stage pass to his guitar strap, and he laid the guitar down on the edge of the stage before he dove off,” adds Special Consensus founder Greg Cahill. In addition, the stage was indeed literally about six feet high above the ground level, and the security people were not believing him when he said he had just jumped off the stage and left his guitar and pass on stage.”

“John Hartford is on next,” Wayne said. “The crowd is hollering for one more song. Hartford jokingly says to the security guard, ‘I’ve never seen this guy before. He doesn’t belong back here or on stage.’ Finally, John tells the guard, he was just kidding, and Robbie was able to join us for the last song.”

Fulks is a singer/songwriter whose 2017 recording, Upland Stories, earned him two Grammy nominations for Best Folk Album and Best American Roots Song for Alabama At Night. He joined Special C in 1983.

“I got to be a better flatpicker within a few months of working steady with them, which was great,” says Fulks. “The main thing I got was road experience—learning the rhythms of it, how to deal with the repetitiveness, the boredom, and the fluctuations in energy output without going nuts or getting addicted to something. That was great for me to absorb when I was young and super-excited about performing in front of people.”

“I have a fun memory of Greg and me stumbling around in some Andy Warhol nightmare dungeon after playing a wedding,” Fulks said. “He’s got a good image going these days and I don’t want to sully it, so I’ll just say that in this long ago time we were young-ish and dumb-ish and single, and some of the rock-and-roll indulgences that we allowed ourselves are some of my fondest memories. Besides that, just one word, Winfield! Getting to hang a little with guys like Jeff White, Tim O’Brien, Alison Krauss, Mike Bub, Charles Sawtelle, and Dan Crary was a total blast, and of course watching Sam and the New Grass Revival at work was one of the great inspirations of my life.”

 Mandolinist Don Stiernberg hooked up with Greg Cahill’s band in the 1970s.

“We heard Chicago’s best bluegrass band was playing at a place on Lincoln across from the Biograph Theater. I went to catch a set and left with lifelong friends. At some point I became sort of the fifth Beatle for Special C, Greg would (and still does) call me to stand in when he needed a player. I’ve played every instrument in the band except banjo.”

“I can remember a lot of laughing, a lot of hollering out when someone would hit a strong tenor or high baritone or incredible lick on an instrument. I can remember meeting several heroes of mine from bluegrass music, even picking some with them, living the dream. I can remember winning over audience members whose initial reaction to the band may have been ‘there’s no bluegrass in or from Chicago.’ I can remember several times loading the van after the show, sitting inside waiting to leave and [wondering,] ‘Where’s Greg?’ He was always engaged in conversation with fans, the promoter, banjo players, colleagues, [and] young musicians. He always had time for everyone.”

Keith Baumann, who was in the 1991-92 class of Special C. remembers how Cahill was diligent about changing the oil in the band’s Ford van exactly on schedule. After a pit stop at Jiffy Lube, the guys took off again with Marty Marone, the guitar player, in the passenger seat with his sleeping mask on. 

“He could not see anything, and he says ‘Do you guys smell something burning?'” Baumann said. “I look over and see that it is his sneaker that is burning, and I shout ‘It’s your foot Marty!’ We slam on the brakes and frantically jump out of the van, which was starting to fill up with smoke coming from the engine compartment, which on those vans is inside the vehicle in the front.”

“Greg quickly pulls off the engine cowl and we notice that it was not put back properly by the Jiffy Lube mechanic, and the insulation was starting to burn from the engine heat. Marty had placed his foot on the cowl while napping and the heat had actually melted his sneaker. So we head back to the Jiffy Lube to get it fixed and the tour went on. Marty will never wear a sleeping mask while traveling again!”

Baumann went on to become a multi-instrumentalist who has lent his talents to Vassar Clements, Alison Brown, Laurie Lewis, Peter Rowan, Patsy Montana, and Rose Maddox.

Andrea Roberts now owns her own booking agency, the Andrea Roberts Agency, where she serves The Grascals, Daryl Mosley, Alan Bibey & Grasstowne, The Caleb Daugherty Band, and others. A member of Special C from 1997-1999, she has also shared the stage with Bill Monroe, Jimmy Martin, Jim & Jesse & The Virginia Boys,  Ralph Stanley, Mac Wiseman, Larry Sparks and many more. Andrea was also the bandleader of the all-female bluegrass band Petticoat Junction that toured and recorded from 1987-1997. Andrea received the Mentor of the Year Award at the 2015 IBMA Momentum Awards, and co-produced the 2016 IBMA Album of the Year (Flatt Lonesome’s Runaway Train).

“Playing with Special Consensus was one of the greatest times in my touring music career, and I’ll always be so grateful that I had the opportunity to be part of this iconic band!” Andrea Roberts said. “Greg Cahill has got to be the hardest working man in bluegrass music, and I truly don’t know if there is anyone in the business that loves it more or is more dedicated. I experienced musical growth while playing in Special C because I had to go outside of my comfort zone for some songs, and it was a great time of continued learning.”

“We spent many, many, many days in the van traveling all over the US and Canada. In addition to festivals and theaters, we played corporate shows during the week in Chicago, and also presented the Traditional American Music program (developed by Greg) in schools all across the country. During my time in the band we were also extremely fortunate to perform several shows with orchestras which was an amazing experience; lead and participated in music workshops; and had an extensive UK tour (around 30 days if memory serves me) which will always be a highlight for me. We also recorded the Our Little Town CD, which I’m still very proud of. I could tell many funny stories on Greg – I’m laughing out loud right now just thinking about some – but mostly I’d like to just say it is an honor and privilege to be a Special C alum.”

Special Consensus had planned a special 45th Reunion/Anniversary concert this year that had to be cancelled because of the pandemic restrictions.

“It was extremely disheartening on many fronts,” Cahill said. “This has been a long-standing tradition and the concert features performances of songs from every Special C recording (there are now 20) by as many current and former band members who appeared on the recordings. Band alums and fans come from all over the country (and sometimes from other countries), and it is a wonderful gathering of our bluegrass family.”

“This year would have been a very ‘special’ event for several reasons. 2020 is the milestone 45th year anniversary, and we are most fortunate that all band alums are still with us. It is the year of the release of our 20th band recording, Chicago Barn Dance, which is Chicago-themed since the band formed here, and we wanted to tip the hat to the city for the often overlooked rich country music roots and scene here. It is the 25th anniversary year of Compass Records, the label that has graciously released our most recent six recordings (five of them produced by Alison Brown) that have garnered six IBMA awards and two Grammy nominations.”

Now billed as the “45th + 1 Anniversary/Reunion” concert, the show is set for October 9, 2021 at the Old Town School of Folk Music in Chicago. With close to a year off the road, Cahill has had time to reflect on the past and the pickers who have helped shape Special C’s sound and success.

“I have been blessed and incredibly fortunate to have had some of the best musicians and best people in the band,” Cahill said. “The band would not have lasted this long, nor been as successful, without the contribution of every one of the 48 members that have joined me on this incredible journey. We have managed to keep a consistent sound while always growing with the unique input and talents each person brings to the band. Our Compass Records great friend and producer, Alison Brown, has also contributed greatly to bringing out the best in each of us and continually raising the bar for us with every recording. And our loyal fans are all true friends who continue to support the band year after year. To describe the band’s legacy, I must quote Alison’s words that she has spoken with the wrap of every Special C recording she has produced: “It’s a team effort.”

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About the Author

Bill Conger

Bill Conger has been a music journalist for 23 years for a variety of TV, radio, print, and websites including TNN, CMT, CMT.com, GACTV.com, Country Music Today, Bluegrass Unlimited, and www.songwriteruniverse.com. He is currently writing a biography on the life of Bobby Osborne.