CD Review – “Scratch Gravel Road” by Special Consensus
by Dan King
Chicago is a town known far and wide for its own special brand of blues. Many icons of the genre were spawned in the windy city including Muddy Waters, Buddy Guy, and Howlin’ Wolf. Chicago is also the home of the baseball Cubs who have not won a World Series since 1908. The 1975 season saw the Cubs go 75-87 and finish fifth in their division, 17.5 games behind the pennant winning Pittsburgh Pirates.
Also back in 1975, in the midst of all those blue notes and post game excuses, Greg Cahill started a bluegrass band and called it Special Consensus. From its unlikely beginning, Mr. Cahill’s band has arrived at an equally unlikely destination. Thirty-seven years after coming to life, Special Consensus is still making bluegrass albums!
As of this writing, the Cubs were in last place.
‘Scratch Gravel Road” marks the sixteenth release for the band, and although the ensemble possesses an unusually long pedigree, its current members boast some comparatively short tenures. Bassist David Thomas has logged six years in the group, mandolin player Rick Faris only three, and guitarist Dustin Benson just joined up last year.
The three newbies are all fine singers giving this version of Special C enough vocal firepower to paint a variety of sonic scenes. “Scratch Gravel Road” may at times sound more like a project than a veteran band recording its umpteenth album, but while the configuration is probably too new to have fully developed its own identity, its heritage and steady leadership serve to keep it pointed in a solid purposeful direction.
Let’s just say that after 37 years of building bluegrass puzzles, Greg Cahill knows how to move the pieces around and make them fit.
The first tune on the album is an absolute scorcher called “Old New Straitsville Moonshine Run.” It features a blazing mandolin solo by Rick and a high lonesome vocal from David. The next cut is “Monroe,” a clever Cajun-esque tribute to the undisputed father of bluegrass. Then we come to one of my personal favorites on the recording, the old Paul Hampton/Hal David song “Sea of Heartbreak.” The shrink-wrap hasn’t even settled in the trash can yet and we have already been treated to three different and distinct lead vocalists and three different styles of song. So much variety yet each cut lands squarely in the middle of bluegrass territory.
There’s that purposeful direction I spoke of.
Before this album is over we also get to hear a four-part harmony a cappella performance and two instrumental pieces. Twelve songs in all including two originals provide a nice mix that shows what this latest edition of Special Consensus is capable of.
Some quality guest appearances round out the particulars of the album. Stuart Duncan’s fiddle spices up a pair of tunes and Alison Brown adds her banjo to the Cahill penned instrumental “Jacklene.” Additionally, two Special Consensus alums, Josh Williams and Chris Jones, return for vocal assists on “Monroe.”
All in all, “Scratch Gravel Road” is a great listen. It is positive, clean, well recorded, and well executed bluegrass music. The band impresses both vocally and instrumentally. On my rating scale of one to five banjo strings, I award this effort four and a quarter strings.
Greg Cahill deserves a lifetime achievement award for keeping Special Consensus working and recording for the better part of the past four decades, however plaques and pennants are not necessary. The band has already presented him with a fitting prize in “Scratch Gravel Road.”
As for the Cubs, well I guess there’s always next year.
Dan King writes for Prescription Bluegrass.