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The Story Behind...The Special Consensus

Donald Teplyske  |  March 17, 2013

Not too many artists end up getting nominated for a Grammy award. I guess that is as good a place to stop as any.

What I was going to type was, Not too many artists end up getting nominated for a Grammy award in their 37th year of operation after not having any similar recognition previously. But that was what happened this past December when the Grammy nominees for Best Bluegrass Album were announced and The Special Consensus were on that list, given the nod for their album "Scratch Gravel Road."

Certainly a well-deserved acknowledgement for the band that was started in the mid-70s by a Chicago-based banjo player named Greg Cahill. Getting an accurate count on how many players have passed through this bluegrass institution is something best left to the only person who has been there for the entire time, but I neglected to ask Cahill that question- I know my Special C 25th Anniversary t-shirt lists 34 official band members, but that was as of thirteen years ago.

Alumni of the outfit include bluegrass household names such as Chris Jones, Ron Spears, Andrea Roberts, Ashby Frank, Justin Carbone, and Josh Williams, as well as Americana notables including Dallas Wayne and Robbie Fulks. Through it all, Cahill has maintained a consistent and occasionally frantic touring schedule, playing throughout the US and Canada, and taking almost annual excursions to Europe, and regular recording schedule.

After this many years, one might expect things to be slowing down for the group, but that hasn't been the case for the Special C. Their 35th anniversary set received nearly universal praise, and "Scratch Gravel Road" gave the group significant chart action for Monroe (or Monroe's Doctrine, depending on the chart/usage), Old New Straitsville Moonshine Run, Sunday Morning Without You, and (I think, if memory serves) Jacklene.

What has caused this 'sudden' rush of success? For one, cream rises and the most recent Special C lineups have been among the strongest Cahill has assembled. "Scratch Gravel Road" is an excellent album, but Cahill and crew have released more than a few of those- I have thirteen albums in my collection, and am missing a couple; the vast majority of those would stand proudly against any other bluegrass albums from their release year.

So, there is more to it than quality. It is also timing. Having had a couple different record companies go bust on him- Turquoise a long while back, Pinecastle just before the release of "35" a few years ago- Cahill and the Special C have found a stable home with Compass Records, the label operated by Alison Brown and Garry West and home to an increasingly impressive list of bluegrass (and bluegrass-friendly) artists including Dale Ann Bradley, The Gibson Brothers, Claire Lynch, Bearfoot, Larry Stephenson, Peter Rowan, and Noam Pikelny. It is no coincidence that Bradley started receiving IBMA Female Vocalist of the Year awards after signing on with Compass; the boutique label knows what they are doing, and this has paid off in a big way for The Special Consensus.

I tell you all that to tell you this- when I got the idea of focusing on the origin of bluegrass band names, I immediately thought that The Special Consensus would be a fine place to start. Frankly, the band name is a bit odd, especially in the bluegrass world where it wouldn't be unexpected to find the group's name as Greg Cahill and the Blustery Wind. (Chicago, remember). Heck, The Special Recipe would make more sense as a bluegrass band name, and likely has. (And, if it hasn't....)

Not the expected for this outfit, then. I was very pleased when Greg took time from his very busy schedule to write at length about the origin of the band's name, and I certainly couldn't do better than he. So, only minimally adulterated, here is the story of how The Special Consensus got its name.

Greg Cahill's story:

When several of us friends began getting together in the early 1970s to play bluegrass music, we were all coming from different musical backgrounds (and we were all either college or graduate students at University of Chicago and University of Illinois in Chicago). I had been in folk groups in college, the fiddle and mandolin player had been playing bluegrass music, the bass player (who ended up being my partner for about 7 years) had played blues harmonica with the then recently deceased Hound Dog Taylor and we often had an eclectic electric guitar player and a drummer who also played harmonica with us. Sometime around 1973 we decided to become a band - and we had numerous configurations and band names until we came up with The Special Consensus Bluegrass Band.

That name came from two places.

One was that since we were all from different musical backgrounds and we all shared an intense love of bluegrass music (and we were learning more about the music together as we got deeper and deeper into the genre) it truly was a "special consensus" of how we would sound, what material we would do, etc. At that time we included the most traditional bluegrass material along with lots of old rock and roll, blues and swing music in the band repertoire so we could get work in Chicago clubs, where people were not all that familiar with bluegrass music.

The other actual source of the name came from books by Carlos Castenada that I was reading at the time, beginning with "The Teachings of Don Juan." This was the first of many books he wrote for his dissertation in sociology after spending time with the Yaqui Indians in Mexico. According to the book(s), he spent a great deal of time living with and around these Indians in Mexico, participating in their rituals and ceremonies and eventually sharing their perspective on life and the world of sorcery that included very intense incidents of both "white" and "black" magic. Although many literary critics discounted the books, saying they were complete fiction, for many of us it didn't matter if the story was real or fiction because it was so interesting, informative and it carried a message.

In short, through all the rituals Castenada attended and participated in, one state called "special consensus" (as explained in his definition of terms in the "Teachings of Don Juan" glossary) became somewhat of a goal for these people because it was essentially the place where good things in the spiritual world meet/combine with good things in the physical world.

I thought that was a perfect name for the band because we were so intensely and sincerely immersed in learning and playing bluegrass music that it strongly affected our lives and lifestyle. I must say that it was this book that also included a long discussion about following "the path with heart" that eventually gave me the courage to take the leap and leave my very good day job (I have a Masters in Social Work degree and was at that time the director of a non-profit consortium of mostly non-profit youth service organizations) to play bluegrass music for a living.

In 1975, the bass player Marc Edelstein and I decided we wanted the band to be a full-time touring and recording entity and the other members at the time were not able to or interested in doing that so we regrouped with other musicians who were on the same path, kept the band name and considered that the "official" beginning of the band as a professional unit.

Over the years, based on suggestions from various booking agents that we worked with and outside professional people in marketing, the name changed to The Special Consensus Bluegrass, then The Special Consensus and, although that is still the name on all business accounts, it is more commonly listed as Special Consensus these days. The "street" nickname is Special C.

Pretty long-winded explanation - sorry! We considered changing the name many times over the years but once we began releasing recordings under that name and touring nationally we were concerned that people would think it was a completely different band, which was not the desired intent, so the name stayed with us.

There it is, the story of The Special Consensus. "Scratch Gravel Road" didn't receive the Grammy Award, 'losing' out to the Steep Canyon Rangers' album "Nobody Knows You." Still, go listen to one of The Special C's albums. I'm listening to "Green Rolling Hills" as I type, but any place is a good place to start. Many years ago, "25th Anniversary" was my gateway to the band, and as stated previously, both "35" and "Scratch Gravel Road" are excellent.

Next time, the story behind James Reams & the Barnstormers. Spoiler alert- the origin of half the name won't be a surprise.

Thanks for visiting Fervor Coulee Bluegrass.

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