Grammy Award-nominated group The Special Consensus has toured in Canada, and many of their fans hail from up north. When deciding on a new “theme” project, acknowledging the contributions of Canadian artists for the band’s next album simply made sense.
That album, Great Blue North, was released this spring. It pays homage to the music of Canada and features a roster of solid, well-known contributing artists. “Special C” guitarist Greg Blake described how the project came together.
“Our most recent project was a dedication to the home of Special C – Chicago – and an acknowledgment of its formative influence, not only on the band but also on country and bluegrass music itself,” Blake explained. “Sometimes a project sticking so closely to a unified theme doesn’t do so well,” he said, but “Chicago Barn Dance” ended up receiving “a couple of IBMA awards and a Grammy nomination.”
In spring 2022, the band also released a song called “Blackbird,” penned by singer-songwriter and – according to Blake, “guitarist extraordinaire” – J.P. Cormier.
“When we released ‘Blackbird,’ and it was also well received, we began to wonder if perhaps another tightly themed project might be in order.” Since they’d built a fan base in Canada, Blake said they “decided to research the vast catalog of songs and tunes penned by Canadian artists and discovered a direction for our new album.”
It was difficult to narrow the field of 100-plus songs that we dearly loved down to just nine more to add to ‘Blackbird,’ Blake explained. They did eventually whittle it down and selected music they felt best represented “the ‘sound’ that Special C has honed over the course of its existence” as well as pieces that “would properly introduce the new band members – myself and ‘mando monster’ Michael Prewitt – to the loyal fans and the bluegrass general public.”
Last but certainly not least, the “theme” aspect had to be there. Each number must reflect the Canadian scene – or culture – in some way. Blake said they wanted a track list that “would resonate with our Canadian fans…numbers that would show appreciation to – and for – their musical heritage and culture, as well as tip the hat to newer, yet worthy artists.”
Blake said the band initially contacted friends they had worked with for possible collaborations, including musicians such as Rob Ickes, Dale Ann Bradley, and Amanda Smith.
“But when we knew of the direction that we wanted to take, we immediately thought of bluegrass, folk and roots music friends that we had come to know and love during our Canadian adventures,” he said. “Canada is rich with extraordinary vocalists and instrumentalists.”
Great Blue North includes ten tracks: "nine songs written and originally performed by Canadian authors, and one medley of two culturally native tunes.”
Featured guest artists include John Reischman, Trisha Gagnon and Patrick Sauber (The Jaybird Trio), Claire Lynch, Darol Anger, Pharis and Jason Romero, Dale Ann Bradley, April Verch, Ray Legere, Amanda Smith, John Showman, Leonard Podolak, Rob Ickes and Alison Brown.
The current lineup of The Special Consensus includes Greg Cahill on banjo; Dan Eubanks with his bass; Greg Blake, who brings the guitar; and Michael Prewitt, playing the mandolin.
“We recorded all ten tracks at Compass Records in Nashville, with Alison Brown producing,” Blake said. “All Canadian guest artists recorded their portions in various Canadian studios.”
The relationship between the band and Alison Brown is long-lasting. She’s worked closely with the band leader and the other “Greg” in the band – Greg Cahill – on many projects.
“All of us have great respect for each other as artists and good people, and we truly enjoy making music together,” Cahill said. “We are on the same page for growing the Special C sound through musical performance, stage presentation and song selection. I also must sing the praises of our outstanding producer Alison Brown, who continually helps us grow our band sound as well as to grow individually as musicians.”
Brown expressed a similar sentiment about these collaborations.
“I’ve produced Special C’s last five records, as well as the current record,” she said. “I was the producer and arranger of the project.” She was also a guest musician on a couple of tracks, including “Pretty Kate” and “Rabbit.”
“I don’t know of a greater bunch of guys than the Special C boys, and I think the world of Greg [Cahill] for his leadership and work ethic as well as for everything he’s done for bluegrass music,” she said.
“With six records under our belts together, these guys really feel like family to me.”