John Reilly & Friends play Moe's Alley on April 29. (Jo McCaughey)
There’s a scene early in Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story where the young Cox, played by Conner Rayburn, hears a grizzled old blues man (David “Honeyboy” Edwards) play the guitar and asks to try it out. Naturally—this is a parody—the 6-year-old is as skilled and soulful as the blues veteran, and his fate is sealed.
The blues didn’t quite work out that way for John C. Reilly, star of the film and the force behind roots music outfit John Reilly and Friends, which comes to Moe’s Alley this Sunday, April 29. It was in his early twenties, just as he was learning guitar, that he first felt the tug of the blues. He even started a band, but it just didn’t take. “Somehow, in the back of my mind, I didn’t feel like I was totally suited to blues music even though I love it,” Reilly says. “Somehow I felt like I didn’t earn the misery it takes to be a great blues singer.” He adds, which a touch of that shambling humility that comes through in so many of his characters, “I’ve been fortunate.”
Though Reilly’s earliest foray into music had been at age 12 with his and his brothers’ supremely awesome rock & roll cover band Shark Fighter (John sang the Mick Jagger and Bon Scott parts), he didn’t head toward rock & roll. Instead he picked up on a thread from his childhood: the old-timey Irish music his mother had played when he was growing up. Well, that and a bluegrass sampler cassette he’d bought on a whim at a 7-Eleven in college because he liked the Beverly Hillbillies theme music and saw that Flatt & Scruggs were on the tape. “I picked it up and immediately was drawn to the Stanley Brothers,” he says.
No surprise, then, that John Reilly and Friends features Reilly singing bluegrass and pre–’60s country in close harmony with Becky Stark, the crystal-cut gamine voice of neofolk outfit Lavender Diamond, and singing storyteller Tom Brosseau (“one of the only guys who can sing higher than me”). He’s recorded singles with both of them, Jack White producing. Reilly’s everyman, populist vibe suffuses these recordings and the performances captured on YouTube. The harmonies are densely textured and the performances have a roadhouse feel.
Reilly says there’s something else about bluegrass, what he calls “an intense spiritual component without the dogma.”
“A lot of bluegrass is religious, and I had a block against it for a while: ‘Ah, it’s boring, it’s the same stuff over and over, Jesus this and Jesus that.’ And then I had this light bulb moment. These are songs of devotion, and they transcend religion. Because even if you’re singing ‘Jesus’ over and over, you could be feeling ‘Buddha’ or ‘the ocean.’ These songs are a gateway to spirituality.”
Not to say Sunday’s performance will be some kind of zen affair. A big band with pedal steel and upright base and guitarist Willie Watson of Old Crow Medicine Show will keep things hopping throughout the live show, which is by far Reilly’s favorite way to play. “There’s something special that happens when you’re in a room and you hear a song played live,” he says. “It ends up being really special.”
John Reilly & Friends with Becky Stark and Tom Brosseau
Sunday, April 29, 9pm