may 2012


Some Kind of Moment

By David McGee

Special Consensus
Compass Records

In its 37-year history Special Consensus has served as a kind of bluegrass farm team, seasoning musicians such as Josh Williams until they were ready to make their own statements. The SC constant throughout has been founder Greg Cahill, he of the sparkling banjo work and the ensemble vision. Scratch Gravel Road is the band’s 16th recording, and one of its best, enhanced as it is by exceptional picking, heartfelt singing, strong material from the likes of Mark Brinkman, Tim Stafford, Becky Bullers and the late Harley Allen, as well as by Cahill himself (who contributes a white-hot instrumental, “Jacklene,” with fleet, impassioned soloing all around, including a tasty banjo solo midway through by producer Alison Brown, who behind the board has fashioned a clean, uncluttered sound that gives the music a striking immediacy). Newest member Dustin Benson makes a favorable impression as well, wiht his “Mollie & Julie’s Reel,” one of the album’s high spirited highlights, fueled by jaunty soloing from guitarist-vocalist Benson himself as well as memorable spotlight turns by Cahill on banjo, fiddler Stuart Duncan and mandolinist Rick Faris.

The making of Scratch Gravel Road

Dappled with sorrow and sentiment throughout, Scratch Gravel Road shows off more than the musicians’ skill as instrumentalists. Bassist David Thomas holds down the bottom securely but is also a fine tenor singer, with a soft, plaintive tone that serves him well whether he’s driving the album opening moonshiner’s barnburner, “Old New Straightsville Moonshine Run” or taking the potent, strong lead of the a cappella gospel quartet telling the good news of Willie C. Williams’s toe tapping story of salvation, “On My Way to the Kingdom Come.” Newcomer Benson, on the other hand, has an appealing bluesy drawl he puts to good use on Tim Stafford’s “Shoulda Took a Train,” a gent’s lament for not bailing sooner on a woman who done him wrong, on which Cahill’s bouncy banjo solos seem to express the singer’s chagrin at being played a fool. Benson’s vocalizing is even more penetrating on Becky Buller’s country tinged breakup cry, “Sunday Morning Without You,” a song with a bit of glide in its stride, despite its enveloping sadness, thanks to a catchy melody; the group’s smooth, affecting harmonies; and the frisky soloing of Cahill and Faris in contrast to the singer’s woes. As for Faris, he shines on a bluegrass-ified cover of Don Gibson’s classic hit “Sea of Heartbreak,” with an expressive lead vocal illustrative of a man wounded and waylaid by his lover’s rejection. In its first-ever recording, Harley Allen’s “A Good Problem to Have” brings out the musicians’ tender side in a gentle ballad counseling, in essence, to count your blessings when all else seems to be going wrong, “a sweet reminder that life ain’t so bad,” as the fellows sing in sweet harmony. Not least of all, Craig Market contributes a hard charging tribute to the father of bluegrass, Bill Monroe, called, yes, “Monroe.” Brisk and buoyant, the song pays tribute to the master’s ethos (“bear down on that fiddle, son/when you play that ol’ ‘Muleskinner’/all you got and then some/then I’ll jump in on the tenor/pick it, Earl, here it comes/Lester and his old G run/you can’t do it that way, son/accordin’ to Monroe’s doctrine/it ain’t no part of nothin’…) by way of storied SC alums Josh Williams and Chris Jones returning to do a bang-up job enlivening the first two verses with lead and baritone vocals. The general consensus? A job masterfully done in all respects. Scratch Gravel Road is some kind of moment.

Special Consensus' Scratch Gravel Road is available at

Founder/Publisher/Editor: David McGee
Contributing Editors: Billy Altman, Laura Fissinger, Christopher Hill, Derk Richardson
Logo Design: John Mendelsohn (
Website Design: Kieran McGee (
Staff Photographers: Audrey Harrod (Louisville, KY;, Alicia Zappier (New York)
Mailing Address: David McGee, 201 W. 85 St.—5B, New York, NY 10024