Having a Coffee with … Greg Cahill

This is fun series in which we ask bluegrass music personalities, some famous, some not so famous, about some of their interests as well as about the music that they love.  

Greg Cahill is the lynch-pin for Special Consensus, having founded the group in 1975 and being the one constant member during the 40-plus years. 

The name Special Consensus comes from the writings of Carlos Casteneda, an anthropologist who wrote about the mystical and spiritual beliefs of a Mexican Indian tribe. The “special consensus” was a state of mind for the Yaqui Indians where “all the good things in life connect with the good things of the spirit.”

Cahill’s first instrument was actually the harmonica, which he began playing with his grandad when I was about four years old. “He was a great player and always gave me his old harmonica when my grandmother would give him a new one for Christmas. I would sit for hours trying to learn the tunes he would show me,” Cahill volunteers.

When he was about eight years old he started taking accordion lessons – his mother was a great piano player as was her mother, who supported her by giving piano lessons and playing piano for silent movies after her father was tragically killed in a railroad accident. His father sang in the church choir. “We always had music around the house – but not bluegrass music,” admits Cahill. 

His “older younger sister,” Kate, four years younger than him, also learned to play the accordion and they would play concerts as The Cahills, participating in park district shows in Chicago and the surrounding suburbs. He took accordion lessons for nearly eight years and that is how he learned how to read music notation. 

In the 1960s he heard Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs and fell in love with the banjo. He has been a full-time banjo player since 1975.

Cahill has one solo LP, Lone Star (Rabbit, released in 1980) and two CDs with credits shared with mandolin player Don Stiernberg. 

He made a recording in Prague with a band comprised of former Special Consensus alums Dallas Wayne and Ollie O’Shea (fill-in fiddle player with the band) and Czech guitarist Slavek Hanzlik. They completed two European tours around 2003-2004, calling themselves ChowDogs (Cahill/ Hanzlik/O’Shea/Wayne = Chow and Dallas/Ollie/Greg/Slavek = Dogs). The album, called not the same, was released in 2004 on the Blue Mill Productions label and is long out of print.

Also, Cahill appeared on many recordings by other artists and played on commercial radio and television jingles.

Special Consensus has released four LPs, one each for Tin Ear and Acoustic Revival and two for Turquoise Records. 

These were followed by 16 CDs, two on the Turquoise label, one for Shy Town, seven for Pinecastle Records and five for Compass Records, their current label. 

Special Consensus has one song/tune on each of four Pinecastle Records compilation recordings (one bluegrass Gospel, one banjo instrumental, and two Christmas collections).

What would you like to drink?

“Would love a good cappuccino.”

Do you want anything to eat as well?

“I always enjoy a croissant, or on occasion something sweet with my coffee – like pancakes in the morning.”

What’s your favorite food? 

“This is a difficult question to answer because I like many types of food – steak, salmon, pasta, Thai, etc. I do like to put a good steak on the grill when home but, I try not to eat much red meat, so this is not an everyday meal.”

And what would you have to drink with that?

“A glass of red wine – usually cabernet sauvignon.”

What’s the nicest meal that you have ever had?

“This question is as difficult to answer as ‘what is your favorite song?’ We (Special C) travel throughout the USA and through Europe and other countries, and I like to eat food indigenous to the region/country. I have had many wonderful meals throughout the 43 years I have been touring with the band.”

Let’s talk bluegrass….. Where/when did you first hear bluegrass music?

“I was listening to rock and roll and folk music in the 1960s, and I became a huge Kingston Trio fan, and then a Pete Seeger fan. I began accumulating folk instruments – a 6-string and a 12-string guitar and a long-neck banjo – all Gibsons. I guess I first heard bluegrass music when The Beverly Hillbillies show aired on television. Then I sat in my college dorm room one afternoon trying to figure out how to play The Ballard of Jed Clampett on my long-neck open back banjo, and a guy knocked on the door and said he was trying to learn the song on his banjo as well. We became good friends and started a folk trio and played together for a few years, and he (PK Frawley) brought the Foggy Mountain Banjo LP to my room one day and that completely hooked me.”

Which of your own songs do you have a particular liking for?

“I have tried to write songs over the years but, I realized I am perhaps better at writing tunes than I am at writing songs. I am not a natural songwriter and I highly respect the great writers in all music genres. I suppose I am partial to the Irish-influenced tune Danny’s Dance that I wrote years ago and recorded twice with Special C as a tip of the hat to the fabulous Irish musician friends we have made over the 20+ years we have been touring over in Ireland and the UK.”

What about a song written by someone else?

“I honestly like many of the songs Special C has recorded over the years, and countless bluegrass songs by many artists. Our new Rivers and Roads (Compass Records) release is the 19th band recording and I like every song on the recording – I might highlight Way Down the River Road (written by John Hartford) and She Took the Tennessee River (by Becky Buller and Jon Weisberger). 

Which particular album do you like best and why?

“I basically learned to play the banjo (and am definitely still learning) by listening to and slowing down records, and going to hear live shows. Many of the Flatt & Scruggs and Bill Monroe recordings are on that list as well as recordings by ‘newer’ artists. J.D Crowe was my greatest influence and I still hold the ‘0044’ Rounder recording of J.D. Crowe and the New South as my favorite bluegrass recording – but I do like many, many others very much as well.”

You play a banjo …. 

“For the past few years I have been playing my 1935 Kel Kroyden banjo on stage, and I played it on the new Special C recording Rivers and Roads. It was an original tenor banjo that I literally found hanging on the wall in a pawn shop in Pontiac, Michigan, over 20 years ago. I now have a Yates tone ring in it and Frank Neat made the 5-string neck.”

Of all the instruments that you have owned what’s your favorite instrument?

“I have had a 1934 Gibson ‘3’ for nearly 30 years, now with a Burlile tone ring and a Frank Neat neck, and I played it on many Special C recordings and on stage for many years. I also have a Prucha, a Huber, my relatively new Deering low-tuned Julia Belle banjo, and of course the Kel Kroyden. These are all great banjos and I enjoy playing all of them on stage. I guess the Kel is the one I am playing most of the time these days and my band mates all definitely favor it. It has that ‘old Gibson’ sound.”

What’s your favourite bluegrass memory?

“Once again, I must say I have so many fond memories throughout my bluegrass music career that it is difficult to choose a favorite. But one I will absolutely never forget is the first time Special C played the Station Inn in Nashville (1980s), and we were rehearsing in the back room (with a summer fill-in mandolin player and Chris Jones as the guitar player). Lin came back and said there was someone to see me – I asked her to tell him we had to rehearse and I would come out in a while – it was only around 7:00 p.m. and show time was 9:00 p.m. Lin said she thought I should go out to see him right away so I did. There stood Bill Monroe in his powder blue suit and white cowboy hat. My jaw dropped and I went right over to him and he introduced me to the woman who was with him as Dee Presley, Elvis’ stepmother, and he said he wanted to hear how boys from Chicago would play his music. He also said they could not stay past the first set but they we looking forward to hearing us. They were still sitting at their table up front after the first set so we went to their table and he began chatting and telling stories and he said he liked our music. We were so humbled and honored to be visiting with him and they actually stayed for all three sets, until we played the last note that evening.”

How do you keep fit and healthy when you spend so much time on the road?

“It is definitely not easy. I try to eat as healthily as possible – eat at least a good hot meal for dinner with a salad and vegetables, and a light breakfast and lunch, sometimes no lunch. I try to not eat red meat more than a couple times a week – turkey and/or fish are usually on most dinner menus – and I try to avoid fried food and fast food. That said, the tight tour schedule we keep sometimes necessitates fast food stops, so we try to find the healthiest options wherever we are. Fortunately, my band mates all try to eat nutritionally. Exercise is most difficult – I try to walk as much as possible and take the stairs rather than the elevator whenever possible. I have house chores – cutting grass and shoveling snow, etc. – that give me good exercise when home, and I do exercise in a fitness center when time permits.”

Are you a sports fan? Who do you follow?

“I follow many Chicago teams – Chicago Bears football, Chicago Bulls basketball, Chicago Black Hawks hockey and I am a huge Chicago Cubs baseball fan.”

What hobbies do you have?

“At this point in my life, my biggest hobby is spending time with my family whenever I am home – especially with my grandkids. I was gone touring so much when my son was growing up that I try to see him and his family as much as possible when I am home – they live in Chicago, a little less than an hour from where I live in Oak Lawn. I also always enjoy just playing tunes on the banjo and playing music with friends in a casual and relaxed setting.”

What is the last movie film that you watched? 

“I rarely get out to a movie theatre, which is my preferred way to see a movie, but my wife and I do occasionally watch a movie at home. I also enjoy watching movies when on long flights, especially international flights. The most recent movie I watched is Darkest Hour. I always enjoy a good western movie, historical movies, and some action movies.”

Do you get much time to watch TV?

“I do watch a few TV series shows when home, and I try to watch the evening news when not spending time outdoors or with friends or family in the warmer months. I do not watch TV enough to have a favorite show.”

What would you be doing if you weren’t involved in bluegrass music? 

“I have a Master’s in Social Work (MSW) degree and I worked with non-profit organizations whose purpose was to help keep young people from abusing drugs. I left that career in its early stages (meaning, I quit my day job) to play bluegrass music full time in 1974. I truly enjoyed working with young folks and I planned to play music for a few years and eventually go back to my social work career. But playing the banjo soon became even more all-consuming; rather than ‘getting it out of my system,’ which was the original plan, I am in year number 44 of making my living playing the banjo.”

Greg Cahill lives in Oak Lawn, Illinois, with his wife, Jackie. 

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About the Author

Richard Thompson

Richard F. Thompson is a long-standing free-lance writer specialising in bluegrass music topics. A two-time Editor of British Bluegrass News, he has been seriously interested in bluegrass music since about 1970. As well as contributing to that magazine, he has, in the past 30 plus years, had articles published by Country Music World, International Country Music News, Country Music People, Bluegrass Unlimited, MoonShiner (the Japanese bluegrass music journal) and Bluegrass Europe. He wrote the annotated series I'm On My Way Back To Old Kentucky, a daily memorial to Bill Monroe that culminated with an acknowledgement of what would have been his 100th birthday, on September 13, 2011.