By ERIC SCHELKOPF
Old Town School of Folk Music teacher and fiddle player Matt Brown set out to educate himself about Chicago's rich musical history.
That mission turned into the album "On Big Shoulders." A CD release party for "On Big Shoulders" will be held at 7 p.m. Dec. 2 at Old Town School of Folk Music's Gary and Laura Maurer Concert Hall, 4544 N. Lincoln Ave., Chicago.
Tickets are $20 for the general public and $18 for Old Town School of Folk Music members, available online at www.oldtownschool.org.
I had the chance to talk to Brown about the album.
Q – What was your inspiration to make the album?
It had two facets that were originally unrelated. In my teaching at Old Town School of Folk Music, I do a certain amount of class preparation.
One week, I was looking for a song for my early country guitar class. I had success teaching a Delmore Brothers song. They were a duo from rural Alabama who played on the Grand Ole Opry in the 1930s.
One of my colleagues suggested another Delmore Brothers song called “I’m Mississippi Bound." I went to do a little research just so I could tell my class about it, and discovered that The Delmore Brothers had recorded several of their songs, including the two that we learned, “I’m Mississippi Bound" and “Brown’s Ferry Blues,” in Chicago in 1933.
That blew my mind. And it got me thinking about who else might have recorded here. And it turned out that Bill Monroe, when he first recorded with the seminal formation of the Blue Grass Boys that included Earl Scruggs and Lester Flatt and Chubby Wise on fiddle, they also recorded here in Chicago in the Wrigley Building on Sept. 16, 1946. And that blew my mind.
And then I had an idea of putting together a lot of my favorite Chicago artists into an all-star band, not to tour, but to make a record that would fall into the genre that we now call Americana. And I put those two ideas together, that I could assemble a crew of some of my favorite singers and musicians and have them play songs that either were originally recorded in Chicago or also cover artists who are from Chicago.
On the album, we have a Wilco cover and we have a Sam Cooke song. He lived here for a formidable part of his life and career.
Q – I understand that Chicago musician Robbie Fulks contributed a new song to the album. Why did you want one of his songs represented on the album?
He's beloved here in town and around the country. I travel a lot as a musician and there are a couple of people who always come up when I say I'm from Chicago. People always bring up Robbie Fulks.
I asked him to write us a song and he did. He delivered this absolute gem that I love. It's right in the middle of the record. It's called "How Lonely Can You Be?"
He knew that Steve Dawson was going to sing it on the album. And he and Steve go way back. I feel like that is one of the highlights of the record.
Q – Did the record turn out the way you envisioned? What kind of feedback have you been getting so far about the record?
It definitely turned out the way I envisioned. I have to say, I wasn't really certain what the record would sound like, I just knew that I would like it.
My co-producer, Liam Davis, also sings on the album and plays keyboards on a couple of songs. But he did all the editing and mixing and he injected some incredible arrangement ideas and sonic ideas that weren't part of my original conception.
Liam created this great arc in how he mixed and edited the album and also how he sequenced the tracks that wasn't anything that he and I discussed. So I'm thrilled with how it turned out and I keep listening to the album and keep discovering and appreciating it.
The feedback I've been getting has been very warm and a lot of people are surprised by the album, surprised by the diversity of the songs and the genres represented and I think that's a good thing.
And hopefully they're learning that all these great musicians that maybe they didn't associate with Chicago either spent time here as residents or came here to make their records.
If they like the sound of the record and if they've learned a couple of things by hearing the record, then our mission is thoroughly accomplished.
Q – Is part of your mission to educate people about Chicago's musical history?
Totally. And honestly, this started out just educating myself about Chicago's musical history. I'm from Pennsylvania. I've lived in Chicago for seven years and I'm still just barely scratching the surface of my own awareness of all the great art that's been made here when it comes to music as well as all other art forms.
The process of researching this music was initially one to educate myself so I could educate my students at the Old Town School. And then it became this larger mission to make good music that anyone could enjoy but also educate an audience just a little bit so that they could be reminded that Chicago isn't only a hub for the electric blues.
And we didn't get into other genres that are so important to Chicago's history, like house music and hip hop and gospel. But I feel like we still did a good job with the musicians involved of showing the breadth of musical experiences that goes beyond the electric blues that fits within our wheelhouse.
Q – Do you think this album could kind of kick off a music series celebrating Chicago's music?
I would love that. I actually have another 30 or so songs or at least artists that I want to pay tribute to should this one album turn into the first of several or the first of many.
I'm not done educating myself about Chicago's history and what I've discovered is that there are so many great musicians living and working as musicians here in town. I'd love to get them back together and get new collaborators involved to continue to celebrate Chicago's history but also our contemporary songwriters.