Like the progress forged by decades of steel-bending and steam-blowing, the hustle inherent in the city’s backbone is echoed through its thriving present-day community of gigging artists. And like the makeup of Chicago’s population, from immigrants to just-passing-through pitstoppers to lifelong locals, on any given night the band onstage can be comprised of a similar mix. In fact, it’s not uncommon that the love for their adopted hometown is the lone bind between players—Chicago brings musicians together.
In early 2016, an opportunity to showcase these strengths occurred to one such transplant making his living in the Windy City. Matt Brown, a teaching artist since 2011 at the storied Old Town School of Folk Music and an established old-time musician who is active in Chicago’s American roots music scene, sought to highlight the city’s musical prowess. “I was getting more familiar with the recently dubbed ‘Americana’ genre and wanted to make an Americana record using Chicagoland musicians,” Brown says. “I wanted it to be a representation of the strength of Chicago’s current working musicians but also its legacy of being a place where musicians come to make records. It would pay a small tribute to that enormous legacy with fresh renditions of songs already associated with Chicago, along with original compositions inspired by the musicians who have lived and worked here for the last century.”
And so, as executive producer, Brown set out to select songs and recruit local players for the project. He built a core band of musicians with whom he’d had exceptional recording and performing experiences, a pocket comprising Steve Dawson (vocals & guitar), Brian Wilkie (pedal steel & guitar), Aaron Smith (bass), and Gerald Dowd (drums). Eight other musicians—from vocalists Keely Vasquez and Gia Margaret to Brown’s co-producer and right hand Liam Davis—make appearances on the album, each closely connected to Brown’s musical work within the city, but the eventual album evolved into a showcase of that core quartet rather than a democratic distribution between a bigger group. “It was in danger of becoming too scattered and leaving the Americana realm,” Brown says. “My favorite music is the honky tonk sound you can dance to that has steel guitar, drums, bass, and fantastic singing, like the classic George Jones on Mercury. I wanted to make a record inspired by that instrumentation and vibe.”
As the scope grew, it became apparent to Brown that the album required a legitimate location on the level of a Nashville session studio. He settled on a Chicago room where he’d overdubbed fiddle for a friend’s record that came with an ace engineer, Shane Hendrickson. Those overdubs and that record, Justin Roberts’ GRAMMY-nominated Lemonade, were produced by the aforementioned Davis, who collaborated and consulted with Brown to refine the concept and logistics of this new project. Leading the recording sessions at I.V. Lab Studios, and later editing and mixing the tracks in his home studio, Davis oversaw the sonic approach to the recordings and stewarded the arrangements. “The approach to each song was a collaborative effort between myself, Matt, and the band—each interpretation was the result of that alchemy,” Davis says.
With the help of a grant from the City of Chicago’s Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events, Brown secured both his group and his home base—he just needed to finalize his setlist. In the process of preparing lessons for his students at the Old Town School, he had discovered that some important songs in the history of bluegrass and country music had been recorded in Chicago by transient artists who came to town to work in their labels’ studios. He had taught The Delmore Brothers’ “Brown’s Ferry Blues” in a guitar class and was amazed to find that the rural Alabamians had also recorded “I’m Mississippi Bound” in the city. He would choose the latter as the first song for his collection, as it represented a key link for Illinois to the heritage of Southern country music and the Grand Ole Opry.
As Brown dug deeper, he turned up more interesting facts: for example, the first time that bluegrass luminary Bill Monroe recorded with Earl Scruggs and Lester Flatt as The Blue Grass Boys was in Chicago; Monroe’s “Heavy Traffic Ahead” leads off the album. Another luminary in the city’s scene, Big Bill Broonzy, had direct connections to the Old Town School as a workshop teacher; the bluesman was present the night the school first opened, and his guitar is now on display there. His “Long Tall Mama” ends the album. “I’m not a native of Chicago so this was a learning experience for me,” Brown says. “Most of the covers came from me asking musician friends or colleagues to share their knowledge about the music made here. It’s a dose of music that ranges widely through the emotional spectrum.”
Two songs came to the project from a pair of Chicago’s favorite alternative artists: alt-country troubadour Robbie Fulks penned “How Lonely Can You Be?” as an exclusive commission, and alt-rockers Wilco are celebrated with a glorious cover of “It’s Just That Simple,” written by their bassist John Stirratt for their 1995 debut album. Surprises abound as well—from “I’ll Come Running Back to You” by Sam Cooke, whose Chicago associations are not as widely known, to the Chess Records deep cut “Shake Your Head” originally performed by living legend Barbara Carr, which was accompanied by an extraordinary event. “While we were recording we couldn’t make out all the words to Barbara’s song, so our drummer Gerald Dowd managed to call her up from the control room,” Brown says. “She pulled out the CD, and while he was on the phone she sang along with herself and translated through that incredible arrangement so we could figure out those last few lyrics. It was a goosebumps moment for us, one which helped us realize just how cool this project had become.”
Davis and Brown recorded the majority of the album live and some tracks are entirely without edits. A large part of the record’s magic comes from the energy and palpable chemistry felt by its players. “There was a sense of wonder and exploration with a slight undercurrent of terror, and we like that it doesn’t sound overly rehearsed or edited to death,” Brown says. “There was proficiency, inventiveness, and excitement in the studio when we made it, and the album captures the energy of these players.” After mastering was complete, Brown raised over $26,000 on Kickstarter, sufficient funds to create his own Allograph Records and release the album on it.
The project—named On Big Shoulders by Davis in reference to the Carl Sandburg poem about Chicago as well as the musicians who carry it—establishes Brown as a formidable executive producer who is keen to build up from these strong roots. As Davis says, “Matt has what you want in an executive producer: boundless enthusiasm and dedication. He also has a gift for choosing the people he works with and, most importantly, trusting them to deliver what he feels they bring to the proceedings.”
Brown is planning a release show in Chicago this fall, and he has more than enough left in the tank to release additional On Big Shoulders music in the future. “My hope is that this is part of the ongoing conversation about the history of Chicago and America’s music scenes and how they’re connected,” Brown says. “Chicago is huge in terms of population but its music scenes are tight. It has a well-deserved reputation as a working musician’s town; it’s a place you can come to play gigs because there are gigs to be played. The way that On Big Shoulders lines up with that historical aspect—the fact that the players on the record embody that spirit and sense of hustle—is a very compelling thing.”
Perhaps Davis sums up that indomitable spirit best: “Chicago is home to me—it has a no-bullshit magic about it. I’ve lived in many other cities and played music in almost all of them, and Chicago is always where I land. It’s an honor to work as a musician in this town.”
Sarah Bennett – firstname.lastname@example.org