It’s ironic that the Hollywood actor John C Reilly has granted me an interview to talk about his music, given that one of the main reasons he started his bluegrass band was to relieve the tedium of movie press junkets. Jetting into London to promote his star turn as Wreck-it Ralph, the arcade game smasher in Disney’s latest 3D adventure, he’s packed his singing companions Tom Brosseau and Becky Stark in his suitcase to squeeze in a one-time concert in a beautiful old church.
“I don’t know why it took me so long to figure this out,” says the 47-year-old star of Boogie Nights, We Need to Talk About Kevin and numerous Will Ferrell comedies. “When they fly you in for these things you get companion tickets. My wife has long since tired of coming along, so I thought, why not turn a business trip into a fun trip.”
Before your brain starts screaming, “Actor’s vanity project! Avoid!”, be assured that Reilly has no ambition in this area other than to use his fame to spread the old-time American folk music that he has loved since he was a boy growing up in Chicago. He doesn’t write songs, there’s no album to plug, and he’d really rather enthuse about the abilities of his younger friends Tom Brosseau and Becky Stark (who sings in The Living Sisters and Lavender Diamond) as well as his long-term favourites The Everly Brothers and The Delmore Brothers.
“My father listened to traditional Irish folk music. My mother loved the old Tin Pan Alley stuff. I taught myself guitar when I was about 19, just something to keep me company on the road, and all these influences eventually catch up to you.”
He started hanging out at Largo, a Los Angeles nightclub known for its impromptu Friday-night gatherings of well-known local singers. “I definitely felt like a fish out of water at first. I think I hold my own now, though.” There he befriended the musicians who’ve comprised his band for the past two years — sometimes a trio with acoustic guitars around one microphone, as they will be in London, sometimes numbering as many as eight including pedal steel, upright bass and drums.
He stresses that it’s “John Reilly and Friends”, without the C that he was forced to add for the benefit of the Screen Actors Guild. “Promoters find that really annoying, actually. They think no one will know who I am. But if people are coming just for that ‘C’ they might be disappointed anyway.”
Those who have heard Reilly sing before will probably be thinking of his 2007 film Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story, a spoof of the Johnny Cash biopic Walk the Line in which his hits included Let Me Hold You (Little Man), Hole in my Pants and Cut my Brother in Half Blues. He even played a few US concerts in the character of Cox at the time. He also sang the showtune Mr Cellophane as Amos Hart in the 2002 film version of Chicago, for which he was nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar, and sang country with Woody Harrelson in 2006 in Robert Altman’s A Prairie Home Companion.
There’s nothing of the hobby singer about his rich, twangy country voice. His musical credibility may not have been proven by a 2009 Grammy nomination for the song Walk Hard (“That was just absurd. I didn’t see that one coming at all”) but it was certainly bolstered by the four songs he, Brosseau and Stark recorded for Jack White’s Third Man Records in Nashville in 2011.
Reilly and White had been pally since the musician started covering Mr Cellophane at White Stripes shows in 2003. “He invited me to a show and we really hit it off. We’re both from the Midwest, both raised in big Irish Catholic families. He’s a really amazing guy.” Reilly persuaded White to play a cameo as Elvis in Walk Hard. Then he was invited to cut two vinyl singles at White’s Third Man Studios, covering songs by The Delmore Brothers, Ray Price and Dolly Parton and Porter Wagoner.
Last year he could be seen on the London-based music website, blackcabsessions.com, driving a duetting White and Wanda Jackson around Nashville in a London taxi. It’s the Black Cab Sessions people who have put together this short-notice gig for him in London.
“The one mission of this band is to keep this music alive,” he says. “Not just listening to it on a computer or in your car, but coming together in a communal gathering. I think you have to listen to it live to really receive this music, so the church shows that we’ve been doing help to create a moving experience.”
If you go along expecting comedy, however, you won’t be completely disappointed. Following the example of Steve Martin, whose mix of banjo and banter in concert has gone down so well in recent years, Reilly promises to be an entertaining compere even though the songs are serious. “I wouldn’t call it comedy but I try to keep it from getting overly precious. A lot of musicians seem to struggle with talking to an audience. As an actor, that part of it comes naturally to me.”
In the end, it’s all about one man’s passion for music. We shouldn’t expect a vanity project from someone who has become a movie star playing average Joes. His genuine enthusiasm for ancient folk shines through. “People might come because they know my name. Hopefully they’ll stick around because the show’s really good.”
The Black Cab Sessions Present John Reilly and Friends is at St Giles-in-the-Fields, WC2 on February 7 (johncreilly.eventbrite.com)
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