Home Feature How American bluegrass band Special Consensus is taking on the Canadian canon

How American bluegrass band Special Consensus is taking on the Canadian canon

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When Bruce Cockburn’s 1991 album Nothing But A Burning Light was released, his song “Mighty Trucks Of Midnight” was described by Entertainment Weekly as having “a lonely, eerie, blues-based guitar sound that conjures heat waves quivering over desert sands.”

What it wasn’t described as was a bluegrass song. But that’s exactly what it is on the new Special Consensus album, Great Blue North, a collection of Canadian songs interpreted by the award-winning Chicago-based band.

“Dan Eubanks (bass) brought that in, and we all liked it,” said group founder Greg Cahill (banjo). “We thought we could stretch out on it and make it kind of interesting.”

The songs on Great Blue North feature writers like Gordon Lightfoot, Gene MacLellan, Fred Eaglesmith and Cara Luft.

“We probably had about a hundred songs to choose from. We kept narrowing the list based on what we thought we could do and what the concept of the album was.”

What started the whole project was the J.P. Cormier song “Blackbird,” which was released in May of 2022 as a way to let fans know the band was still active following COVID. Their producer, Compass Records co-founder Alison Brown, had first suggested the song to the band in 2020 for what eventually became the album Chicago Barn Dance. As a way to introduce the newest members of Special Consensus, Greg Blake (guitar) and Michael Prewitt (mandolin), Alison and the group re-visited the song.

“We said, ‘Let’s just do it now,'” said Greg. “We put it out and it did quite well.”

The recording was nominated for a 2022 IBMA award for Collaborative Recording of the Year and sparked the idea of doing an album of all Canadian songs.

“We go to Canada a lot, so why not tip the hat to them,” Greg said.

Special Consensus (affectionately referred to as “Special C”) has been around for 48 years and released 21 albums, seven of them for Compass Records, of which six have been produced by Alison Brown.

“Her perspective is to always to have something different, to keep people engaged. It’s almost like each song is an album unto itself.”

To that end there will be some variation to each verse and each chorus of a song.

“Alison’s known for the key change effect,” Greg said laughing. “She’s known for changing the stack of the harmonies or creating a bridge in a song just to make it different.”

To that end Special Consensus does twinning of instruments such as having Alison playing harmony banjo along with Greg on melody.

The band has toured throughout Canada over many years and has established many friendships with Canadian performers. A number of them show up on Great Blue North, including Pharis and Jason Romero, Ray Legere and The Jaybird Trio, who contributed their talents to Gordon Lightfoot’s “Alberta Bound,” which recently won the 2023 IBMA award for “Collaborative Recording of the Year.”

“I never in a million years thought we would win that award!” Greg said.

Greg’s skepticism was understandable considering the other nominees included their producer, Alison Brown’s, recording with Steve Martin.

“As we walked to the auditorium, my wife said I should have a few sentences written down. I said there was no way we were going to win. It was a pleasant surprise.”

It was also a good night for the band’s guitarist/lead vocalist Greg Blake, who walked away with the award for Male Vocalist of the Year.

Putting together the video for “Alberta Bound” was an interesting proposition for Special Consensus, what with participants scattered across Canada and the band itself in Belfast, Northern Ireland.

“We thought that song would work the best by having guests because it’s a song you can’t help but sing along to,” Greg said.

You also can’t help but chuckle during the third and fourth verses, which feature Pharis and Jason Romero on a ski-doo pulling their two children on skis. Although one of the kids wipes out, the couple continues singing as they ride through the snow.

The inclusion of David Francey’s “Highway 95” was because of its universal theme for touring artists: life on the road.

“The feel for that song and what he’s talking about struck all of us,” Greg said. “I can totally relate to that.”

I mentioned to Greg that I had interviewed David Francey this summer and was surprised David didn’t know Special Consensus had recorded his song.

“Well he’ll know when he gets his royalty cheque!” Greg said laughin.

For more on Special Consensus and Great Blue North, go to specialc.com.

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