John Reilly & Friends perform at the Old Town School of Folk Music on June 22.
John Reilly & Friends, 8 p.m. June 22, Old Town School of Folk Music, 4544 N. Lincoln. $26-$28. (773) 728-6000;
When actor John C. Reilly sang a show-stopping version of “Mr. Cellophane” in the movie musical “Chicago,” the world took notice: This guy can sing. But it wasn’t until Robert Altman’s film “Prairie Home Companion” that Reilly really stepped into an all-encompassing musical role when he and Woody Harrelson played a couple of singing cowboys.
“That was the first time I sang and played guitar live on camera in front of a live audience,” Reilly recalls. “It was pretty heavy stuff; a real white knuckler for me. It was that experience that showed me I could embrace my musical side.”
Shortly after the Altman movie, Reilly starred in the comedy, “Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story,” in which he played a Johnny Cash-style performer. By now, Reilly was ready to do the music thing for real.
The band John Reilly & Friends fulfills that wish. Along with singer-songwriter Tom Brosseau and singer Becky Stark, he performs classic American folk, bluegrass, country tunes with tight, two-part vocal harmonies. The band makes its Chicago debut June 22 at the Old Town School of Folk Music. Joining the trio on this Midwest tour is singer-songwriter Dan Bern (guitar, vocals), Sebastian Steinberg (bass) and former Old Crow Medicine Show member Willie Watson (guitar, banjo, vocals).
Reilly had long been attracted to the high and lonesome harmonies of acts such as the Stanley Brothers, the Everly Brothers, the Louvin Brothers and the Delmore Brothers. It was their love of two-part harmonies that clicked with Reilly and Brosseau.
“I think our voices have different qualities,” Brosseau says. “But there’s definitely some magic there when we harmonize.”
In 2011, Reilly recorded two songs produced by his friend Jack White (he played Elvis in “Walk Hard”) and released as singles by White’s Third Man Records: The Delmore Brothers’ “Gonna Lay Down My Old Guitar,” performed with Brosseau, and Ray Price’s “I’ll Be There If You Want,” performed with Sharp.
“What that gave us was a kind of legitimacy at a point when we were wondering how serious we were about all this,” Reilly says. “He put some wind in our sales.” Hopes are to record a full-length album by the end of the summer.
Music actually goes a long way back with Reilly who grew up in Marquette Park and studied acting at DePaul University. He performed in school musicals; his mother had a player piano (“a big source of inspiration”); his dad listened to traditional Irish music; and he and his brother had a “basement band” called Shark Fighter (“we could only play Rolling Stone songs”).
Reilly’s introduction to bluegrass came through an unlikely source — “The Beverly Hillbillies” — and its theme song performed by the legendary duo Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs.
“That show exposed the world to two of the best bluegrass musicians ever,” Reilly notes. “I really connected to that music I think because of all the Irish traditional music I listened to as a kid. You go one step back from Appalachia and it’s all Irish and English people on boats entertaining themselves.”
Each member of the trio refers to this project as “a labor of love.” They have mastered a catalog of more than 150 songs all of them from an earlier era. “Our intention is to keep the magic of this music alive,” Stark says, “by sharing all these songs that have lasted through time.”
Yet, Reilly and friends have been known to take a shot at Adele’s “Rolling in the Deep,” which they perform as “more of a field holler in a bluegrass style with a foot stomping beat,” Reilly says. “But I always felt sort of self conscious about doing it. Not because of Adele but because it was the only song in the set written before 1960.”
Mary Houlihan is a local free-lance writer.