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Illinois Rail: Bluegrass Friends Spreading Joy

Illinois Rail play the Bluegrass and Brass Summer Concert tomorrow
Illinois Rail
Illinois Rail plays the Bluegrass and Brass Summer Concert on Saturday.

A steamboat cruise on the Illinois River seems an unlikely first gig for a gospel-tinged bluegrass band.

“I don’t think everyone was interested in hearing our gospel music,” laughed Illinois Rail mandolin and dobro player Cliff Anglen at the thought of a Peoria-based party cruise dancing along to the Normal-based quintet.

“But we did play some traditional bluegrass stuff we threw together, but we’d only been together a couple weeks.”

That inauspicious debut is now 13 years downstream. But the musical history and comraderie Anglen shares with Illinois Rail guitarist/bassist Gary Dickson runs considerably deeper.

“Cliff and I have played together for 40 years in various bands, and we have played with (Illinois Rail banjoist) Doug (Knecht) since he was 12 years old. We just started playing with Dave and Peg Schippert about 13 years ago,” said Dickson of the trio’s relatively recent relationship with guitarist/bassist Dave and vocalist/guitarist/songwriter Peg.

The band’s mission is simple, according to Dickson.

“Share our gifts,” said Dickson. “That’s really our goal … to have a good time. We’re really good friends and we try to project that on stage. Hopefully the crowd picks up on that and whether they’re bluegrass fans or not, they’ll enjoy our performance because we’re enjoying it.”

That enjoyment now extends to younger bands and artists who are either making a name for themselves playing bluegrass or incorporating that sound into their music mix. Sierra Hull, Tramples by Turtles, even the rising Peoria band Way Down Wanderers incorporate at least some bluegrass into their sound. That doesn’t surprise Dickson, who has witnessed waves of bluegrass popularity over his four decades of performing.

“My opinion is that (bluegrass) is just fun,” said Dickson.

“And you don’t have to have amplifiers or a bunch of stuff,” added Anglen. “You can sit around a campfire at night, play music and have a good time. That’s one reason I’ve stayed with it.”

You’d think 40+ years of “staying with it” would cause Anglen to pause for a moment when asked about his favorite gig, but barely a beat passed between the end of the question and when he answered.

“The best gig that comes to my mind right away is when Gary and I got to play with the famous mandolin player Jesse McReynods. He was playing with another band I was sitting in with down in Monticello at ‘the Little Ryman.’ They were able to get him, his son-in-law and granddaughter. But they needed a backup band. So this other band said ‘yeah, we can back him up,’ so I got to play and the guitar player couldn’t do it, so Gary played guitar for Jesse McReynolds. And since Jesse plays mandolin, I played dobro. That was one of the highlights.”

Dickson recalled a yearlong gig his old band the Bluegrass Cracker Jacks had at the Conklin dinner theater in Goodfield. The band played the music for a melodrama the theater was staging.

Chaunce Conklin had seen us play at one of the brown bag concerts downtown,” said Dickson. “And this was a year before he was going to produce this show. He approached us about doing the show, which is something we had never done. We don’t read music, we didn’t have a clue. But we had a great time. It was a lot of learning curve rehearsing the play, but we did a dinner hour show every Tuesday for a year … and that was fun.”

Illinois Rail continues the fun Saturday when they open the Bluegrass and Brass Summer Concert at 4 p.m. at Immanuel Bible Foundation at Broadview Mansion in Normal. The Twin Cities Brass Quintet plays at 5 p.m.

The WGLT interview with Illinois Rail.

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Jon Norton is the program director at WGLT and WCBU. He also is host of All Things Considered every weekday.