The list of Hollywood actors who have flirted with playing in bands is a long and dubious one, from Don Johnson and Bruce Willis to Juliette Lewis and Russell Crowe. It’s difficult to see any of these “musical” endeavors as anything but vanity projects that wouldn’t have attracted a smidgen of attention without the celebrity factor.
But Everyman actor John C. Reilly, born and reared on the South Side of Chicago, is one of the exceptions. His group – John Reilly and Friends – is loaded with ace musicians and singers (including Becky Stark, Tom Brosseau, the Old Crow Medicine Show’s Willie Watson, Dan Bern and ex-Soul Coughing bassist Sebastian Steinberg). And Reilly is credible singer and a serious student of pre-rock-era folk songs, hymns and ballads. He and his bandmates dig into the deep treasures underlying American roots music, taking on everything from old Carter Family songs to Irish sea chanteys.
“It feels like a really great way to use the fact that some people know who I am,” Reilly says. “You could use it (celebrity) to sell cologne, or good dental hygiene, or you could use it to turn people on to music that they forgot about, or never knew. We go on tour and I’m like the chum in the fishing boat, using my name to get people to come to the show. You might come to see me, but you leave awed by Tom, Becky, Seb, and the band.”
Though acting became his career, “music was a big part of my life since I was a kid” growing up in the Marquette Park neighborhood on the Southwest Side, he says. He learned guitar, and absorbed the Irish music that his father loved and the Tin Pan Alley standards on the family’s player piano. Along the way he attended Brother Rice High School and DePaul University before moving to Los Angeles.
“The blues figured pretty big in my life – the birthplace of the modern blues was 15 minutes due East of me,” he says. “I had a blues band, and at some point I had to admit to myself, I’m a more optimistic person than that – I haven’t suffered that much (laughs). I went further and further back to old blues and some of the first recorded music. I listened to a lot of traditional Irish music, roots music. Maybe it had something to do with me getting older, thinking about my own mortality, but you find these songs that cut across generations and there’s a reason they’re immortal.”
In Hollywood, Reilly brings his salt-of-the-earth personality to an array of movie roles. His credits include musicals (“Chicago,” his hilarious rock ‘n’ roll homage “Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story”), dramas (“Gangs of New York,” “Magnolia,” “Boogie Nights,” “Cyrus”) and comedies (“Step Brothers,” “Cedar Rapids”).
But he also has become part of a loose group of actors and musicians who congregate regularly at the nightclub Largo. Reilly appeared on the “Rogue’s Gallery: Pirate Ballads, Sea Songs and Chanteys,” a 2006 collection of traditional songs compiled by Hal Wilner and also featuring Richard Thompson, Nick Cave and Lucinda Williams. The 2007 “Walk Hard” movie saw Reilly paying tribute to some of his musical heroes, from Johnny Cash to John Lennon, and led to a tour.
“That movie was a love letter to music, and afterward we went on tour and played some of those songs for people – that’s where I got the nerve to play music on stage,” he says. “Then I met Tom (Brosseau), and he came over to my house to play some music. We played some of those old songs we both love, and his voice sounded amazing. That was the lightbulb moment.”
Jack White, who had a role in “Walk Hard,” bolstered the new venture by recording and releasing two singles on his Nashville-based Third Man Records om 2011: Reilly and Brosseau singing two Delmore Brothers songs, “Gonna Lay Down My Old Guitar” and “Lonesome Yodel Blues #2,” and Reilly and Stark taking on Ray Price’s “I’ll Be There if You Ever Want” and the Porter Wagoner-Dolly Parton tune “I’m Making Plans.”
“Jack’s a good Irish-Catholic kid from Detroit just as I’m an Irish-Catholic kid from Chicago, so we had a lot in common,” Reilly says. “I feel indebted to him. We were thinking, ‘Is this going anywhere?’ And he says, ‘Yes it is! I’ve got this studio, this record plant, you can stay at my house. Let’s make a record.’ It gave us a shot of confidence exactly when we needed it.”
Many of the songs Reilly and company perform in concert are cornerstones of musical Americana, but they haven’t exactly been over-exposed in the last half-century.
“We do some songs that are lighthearted, silly, but for the most part we play songs that deal with bigger issues in an eloquent, simple, succinct way,” he says. “Young people come up to me, ‘Did you write all those songs?’ ‘No, we didn’t write any of those songs (laughs).’ Time moves fast. Every day some 12-year-old leaves the protective environment of his home and discovers new music. If no one out there is doing a certain kind of music, you won’t find it. The sad truth is that lot of the people who innovated this music are getting older and passing on. You’ve got to play this music to keep it alive.”
John Reilly and Friends: 8 p.m. Saturday at Old Town School of Folk Music, 4544 N. Lincoln Av., $26 and $28; oldtownschool.org.