Why John Denver? A better question might be, what took so long?
A bluegrass album of Pearl Jam tunes, or Sinatra, Kanye, or Count Basie, all might seem like odd couplings, but John Denver is an artist from outside of bluegrass whose body of work and the themes embraced practically scream for full bluegrass coverage. Just look at the titles of the songs the band has assembled—many of the themes are as bluegrass as Bill Monroe himself: home, God, country, prayer, even horses.
Special Consensus is the first bluegrass band to devote a full platter to Denver’s music and lyrics. And then some—the musical guests are all acoustic music A-listers, which is what the material deserves. These are great songs.
When you have been around for four decades – Special C’s 40th birthday celebration happens in 2015 – and build yourself to be a premier band, the kind that gets Grammy-nominated (for Scratch Gravel Road in 2012), musical connections are forged that can be called upon to help you sing a rousing “Happy Birthday.” But since that’s not a John Denver song, it isn’t here. What is included is pure, Denver-mined gold.
“The time was right for making a complete recording of John Denver songs,” Cahill says about this, the band’s 17th album. “Bluegrass bands have performed and recorded his songs over the years but our plan was more comprehensive: to reach out to some of our many bluegrass friends and invite them to join us in a 100% bluegrass send up to John. We used the Will The Circle Be Unbroken album as inspiration with Special Consensus as the core band on every track and invited guests into our circle.” Cahill is referring to the groundbreaking Nitty Gritty Dirt Band classic from 1972 that brought musical giants together and introduced fans from different worlds to new aural territory. “We wanted to include a mix of songs from John's repertoire, some that most people would recognize and a few that are less familiar. And, I hope that if we did our job well, this record will bring some new fans to bluegrass through John's much loved repertoire."
Leading the “most would recognize” category of selections on the record is “Country Roads,” the classic hit from 1971, and the golden pipes of former New Grass Revival guest tenor John Cowan soaring atop the lyrics’ Blue Ridge Mountains would likely have made Denver himself grin, and wider still by tossing in the phenomenal fiddler of the Del McCoury Band, Jason Carter.
A couple more blockbusters benefit from two of today’s finest female bluegrass artists – Dale Anne Bradley’s powerful purity, along with Flamekeeper fiddler/leader Michael Cleveland, on “Back Home Again” and Rhonda Vincent at her plaintive best on “Sunshine on my Shoulder,” which finds Cahill using a mute on his banjo’s bridge to achieve a gentler tone, both tunes hits for Denver in 1974.
Blue Highway’s Rob Ickes injects a touch of Dobrolic spice to the Special Consensus sound, while guitarist and singer Peter Rowan, who was in a classic 1960s edition of Bill Monroe and his Bluegrass Boys, adds some ‘grassy pedigree to 1973’s “Rocky Mountain High,” another huge hit, and now an official state song of Colorado no less.
“Poems, Prayers and Promises” is the title track from Denver’s breakthrough 1971 album that spawned the “Country Roads” and “Sunshine on My Shoulders” singles. In the band’s quest, as Cahill describes, “to try and achieve many different textures throughout the recording,” he employs an all wooden banjo, along with the voice of the prolific and diverse Jim Lauderdale. For Denver’s “Wild Montana Skies,” released in 1983, Ickes' Dobro returns to help propel this feature for guest Claire Lynch’s sweet-and-sultry vocals.
Buddy Spicher, like Rowan, is another guest who recorded in the 1960s with the music’s founding godfather, Bill Monroe. Spicher is joined here by relative youngster Michael Cleveland to twin-fiddle through “Thank God I'm A Country Boy.” This is the one classic John Denver song that wasn’t actually at least co-written by Denver, but solely by his long-time band-mate John Sommers, whose own website features a headline, “Thank God He Wrote Country Boy!” John Denver fans would agree. Special Consensus proves this melody can stand on its own by recording a purely instrumental version of the song that includes a twin banjo appearance from the album's producer Alison Brown.
A first happens on “This Old Guitar.” After nearly forty years and seventeen Special Consensus albums, for this tune Greg Cahill put down his banjo and picked up a guitar. In fact, all four Special C members play guitars on the song, making this a good place to meet them, the core pickers and grinners of this project.
Leader Greg Cahill’s worn many hats in bluegrass, including that of the International Bluegrass Music Association president from 2006-2010, but there’s no need to look beyond his fingertips to know what drives him. Cahill and his 5-string banjo and baritone and tenor harmony vocals have lead Chicago area’s The Special Consensus since 1975, through seventeen albums, including the fore mentioned Grammy nominated Scratch Gravel Road, which contained the track, “Monroe’s Doctrine,” nominated for the IBMA Recorded Event of the Year award in 2012. Somehow, Cahill has also found time to release three acclaimed solo albums: Lone Star, Blue Skies, and Night Skies.
Jasper, Alabama’s own Dustin Benson (lead, tenor, baritone and bass vocals) learned guitar from his father at age 12, and since moving to Nashville in 2002, has played and toured with Valerie Smith and Liberty Pike, the Alecia Nugent Band, the Larry Stephenson Band, Bradley Walker, and Lorraine Jordan and Carolina Road. Nominated for Guitar Player of the Year by the Society for the Preservation of Bluegrass Music in America (SPBGMA) in 2010, Benson joined Special C in 2011.
Following a sort-of bluegrass tradition of musicians picking up “other” instruments to play with a favored band, mandolinist Rick Faris (lead, baritone, tenor and high baritone vocals) is most famous as an award-winning guitar player, but is equally fluent on dobro, banjo and, yep, the mandolin. Born in Iowa and moving through Arkansas and Missouri ultimately to Kansas 1991 and to the multi-award winning Faris Family Bluegrass Band in 1998, he received the SPBGMA Midwest Guitar Performer of the Year award in 2005 and 2008. Faris is also a highly regarded luthier (builder) of fine guitars, for which there is a one year waiting list, as well as Dobros and mandolins.
It is not unusual for members of The Special Consensus to bring backgrounds beyond bluegrass, and the resume of bassist and lead, baritone and bass vocalist Dan Eubanks exemplifies the kind of diversity that has always stamped the group’s aesthetic. Missouri born and bred and already attending bluegrass festivals as a kid in the early 1970s, Eubanks worked his way through drums, banjo, guitar, and electric bass in country and rock bands as a teen. Hitting the books with a music scholarship, Eubanks added jazz bass to his vita and a Master’s Degree in Jazz Studies from Webster University in St. Louis. Since moving to Nashville in 2003, Eubanks has been playing in a variety of situations, as well as teaching and working as a studio session musician, joining Special C in 2013.
And before signing off and letting you focus on the actual, wonderful music, it’s worth mentioning that John Denver was no stranger to bluegrass. YouTube and the internet are sprinkled with bits of Denver picking some serious ‘grass, while his albums feature the occasional musician better known at bluegrass festivals than rock jams, such as Punch Brothers’ fiddler Gabe Witcher, who recorded on his final album, All Aboard, released shortly before Denver’s tragic death at age 53 in a 1997 plane crash. Other bluegrass names gracing Denver album credits through the years include Eric Weissberg of "Dueling Banjos" fame; fiddler Byron Berline, who recorded with Bill Monroe as well as appearing on Greg Cahill’s own Lone Star album; bluegrass and Americana multi-instrumental all-star Herb Pedersen; and fiddler Buddy Spicher, already mentioned in these notes for appearing on both this disc and one of Bill Monroe’s.
Special Consensus and John Denver – a match made in West Virginia’s country roads, Colorado’s Rocky Mountains, the skies of wild Montana, or any other place you want to call heaven.