This post is a contribution from Greg Cahill, founder of, and banjo picker with Special Consensus. Greg has also been an active member of the IBMA, and a very effective bluegrass ambassador, bringing the music to non-bluegrass audiences all over the world.
In the 1980s, The Special Consensus was approached by a booking and management firm based in Florida to consider joining the cast of a touring theatrical production of a show called Cotton Patch Gospel. This show was a two-act musical (words and music by Harry Chapin) that had run on- and off- Broadway in New York City, and had already completed one rather lengthy tour of the USA. The premise of the show (based on a book by Clarence Jordan) was to present the biblical stories and parables in the scripture if Jesus Christ was born today in the State of Georgia. The script was cleverly written for a cast of five “? one primary actor who assumed numerous roles and was the story teller and four bluegrass musicians who sang the songs and remained on-stage throughout the show to react to the tales of the narrator. We were basically the apostles and disciples who were “good old boys” from the South.
We were a bit reluctant at first to accept this offer since none of us had ever been in a professional stage production and the tour was 12 weeks long (not including two weeks of intense rehearsal). This would keep us from performing our own music for several months, and we would have to spend a great deal of time learning the words and music as well as to familiarize ourselves with the script and all of our moves on stage (called “blocking” in the world of theater). The producers of the show were eager to have a professional bluegrass band assume the musical roles rather than actors since the band members would be familiar with performing together and would most likely learn the music together rather quickly. They were quite successful with this plan for the first tour “? the bluegrass band Cloud Valley (with Missy Raines and Bill Evans) had completed that tour and had received excellent reviews.
We eventually accepted the offer – how great to have a steady income for the first quarter of the year with all travel expenses paid and the opportunity to play in cities in many states we had never visited (basically covering the circumference of the United States). We worked hard to learn all the music in a relatively short period of time, spent two weeks in a warehouse in Texas with the director and musical director learning the actual show and began the tour with a performance in a small Baptist church in Texas.
The tour schedule was somewhat grueling, but we were used to that as a touring bluegrass band. We played in large and small theaters, community centers, churches and even schools. By the end of the tour (after performances in Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Tennessee, Georgia, Florida, North Carolina, Virginia, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Illinois, Wisconsin, Washington, California and Arizona) we were back in Texas for one of our final performances in a huge Baptist church. We were tired by then, but we had grown to appreciate the music of Harry Chapin that we were performing in the show, even though we were anxious to get back to the bluegrass music circuit. It was not just “all about the money” for us.
That performance went particularly well – everything felt “right” that evening, and the primary actor felt we all had managed to do our best in spite of our fatigue and eagerness to get to our respective homes in a few days. As we walked around outside to the front of the church after the show, we noticed an ambulance and a crowd of people – many were teary-eyed and sobbing as they walked to their cars in the lot. Before we could ask any of the bystanders what had happened, a man and woman came up to us and said:
“We brought our elderly mother to see the show tonight – she truly enjoyed your performance. As we were leaving the church, she stumbled and before we could grab her arm she fell down the (concrete) stairs. As you can see, she is being rushed to the hospital (unconscious), but we are quite certain she will not live through this. We wanted you to know that although we are so saddened by all of this, our one source of comfort is that she so enjoyed your performance and she was beaming with smiles as we walked out of the church. That is how we will always remember her – thank you for making such wonderful music and for the wonderful show. You made our mother very happy.”
That experience made us realize just how powerful the connection of music is in our lives – it was a bit overwhelming, to say the least. It made such an impact on us that we continued to complete sporadic tours with this show for another three years, always striving to offer the best possible performance.
I think of that evening often and am thankful that we have so many opportunities to bring bluegrass music across the country and to other parts of the world (even when we are worn from traveling and being away from home). It makes me appreciate just how fortunate we in the “world of bluegrass music” are to have all the friends we make in this huge extended family and how powerful our connection through this great music truly is.
Wishing a very peaceful and happy holiday season to all,