Most recognize John Reilly (the “C.” is apparently arbitrarily applied) as an actor in obtuse melodramas like 1999’s Magnolia or ridiculous comedies such as 2006’s Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby. Although he’s carried a tune on the silver screen (2002’s Chicago, 2007’s Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story), the thought of him as a musician doesn’t tend to cross over. In recent months, however, Reilly and a few of his friends, including Dan Bern (who wrote many of the songs in Walk Hard), have been touring around the West Coast, performing in small venues and churches, creating their own little happenings. In late May, he performed to thousands at this year’s Sasquatch! Music Festival.
People may expect a night of comedy upon seeing Reilly’s name on the marquee, but once inside, they’re treated to an evening of traditional country songs and storytelling. A few weeks back, Consequence of Sound caught up with Reilly to discuss his love of music, his friendship with Jack White, the public’s reception of his music career, and his desire to play Nathan Detroit if Guys and Dolls is ever revived.
I’m going to try and avoid any film related questions, if that’s okay with you. Unless of course it’s music related, as in, did you really play drums in Step Brothers?
Yeah! Not very well, but I played the drums. I played drums in another movie years ago called Georgia that I made with Jennifer Jason Leigh and Mare Winingham; I was in John Doe’s band. We recorded the music live.
John Doe of X? He kind of went more of a country route later on in his career, didn’t he?
It’s the final destination for many punk rockers.
That’s really funny you said that. A friend of mine, Cynthia Connolly, did a book called Banned In D.C., a photojournal of the hardcore scene of D.C. She was actually doing a follow-up on that in recent years, and how they’re all rockabilly artists now.
Rockabilly is the mid-point, and then you end up at country. Like Mike Watt. There’s something about it. There’s purity to that music, and I think that appeals to a lot of punk rock people. The precision, and the purity, and the directness of country music…I’m not trying to be sarcastic; I really think there’s a correlation between the music.
I kind of miss the old school country.
Well, you’re in for a treat, Len. John Reilly and Friends are coming to your town.
I’m in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia.
Oh nice. I’ve spent lots of time there myself.
Right on. Pleasure or business?
Pleasurable business. I had a lot of friends, when I lived in New York, when I first got out of college. I made friends with all these guys that went to the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, and I used to go down there a lot.
You should definitely look into the festivals that go on in Virginia and the Carolinas.
I always wanted to play the Clinch Mountain one, the one that Ralph Stanley puts together. I always wanted to go to that one for that matter. I’ve seen him perform here in California a couple times, and it’s just so special to see that group. Now that we’re getting our toes wet, we’re really open to it. We’re trying to keep it, like I said, kind of special and short run, so people don’t get burnt out and it doesn’t start to feel like work, but by all means.
So, it’s John Reilly and Friends. Is that Tom Brosseau, Becky Stark, and Sebastian Steinberg, or are there other people involved?
Yeah, Willie Watson from the Old Crow Medicine Show is in the band. This guy Dan Bern, who’s a great songwriter and who wrote a lot of stuff for Walk Hard, is in the band. Greg Lease is like the best pedal-steel player west of the Mississippi; [he] is in the band. A lot of these people come and go because they have outstanding gigs that they have obligations to.
Are you dropping the “C” in order to create a distinction between your musical identity and your film identity?
The “C” was always just arbitrarily added because of union rules. The truth is, anyone who really knows me doesn’t call me John C. Reilly. I’m known as John Reilly among the people that know me. I just thought, well, this is out of the jurisdiction of the Screen Actors Guild, so I can call myself what I want.
Seeing the clips online, a lot of the performances seem to be really small, intimate in nature; the music obviously caters to that. Do you encourage the audience interaction that I’ve been seeing, or would you prefer that they just sit and listen to what you guys are doing?
I want everyone to have a good time. If you mean, like, singing along and stuff, we love it. There’s a couple of songs we do, especially towards the end of the night, when we encourage everyone to chime in. I think a lot of people come to the shows not knowing what to expect; they see John Reilly and Friends and they think it might be a night of stand-up comedy or something. They want to scream “Shake and bake” a few times at the beginning of the show. [laughs] That’s fine, it’s all love. People are really enthusiastic and happy to see me when I come out. And then we do our set, and maybe there’s a small amount of head scratching to begin with, and then 100% of the time people have settled into the concept of what we’re doing and really appreciate this gift we’re giving.
I’m not doing it to get more famous; I’m not doing it because we’re trying to sell records (although we do have a couple of 45s that we sell at the shows). There’s not some big commercial enterprise behind this. It’s just a love of this music and a desire to be together as friends and play music and share it with people. I think that really appeals to audiences. So far it’s been really special, every time we do it. I’ve been careful not to just book a tour of, like, two months of date after date, after date, after date, because we want these shows to feel like “happenings;” when they happen, they’re really special and rare. A one night only kind of deal.
Do you normally play amplified, or do you play entirely acoustic?
Yeah, we play amplified. The way it breaks down, we kind of do a bunch of old country classics with pedal-steel and the full deal, and everyone has to be amplified in order to be heard, for those songs. And then we do kind of a mini set in the middle where Tom and I will do close harmony singing on some old traditional music, and Everly type songs, and Delmore Brothers kind of songs. And that we just do around a microphone. There’s kind of a mix of that, it kind of comes and goes. It’s kind of a Roots Revue. I do most of the songs with other people, and every once in a while someone will do a song by themselves. We keep it moving that way. There’s a lot of variety to the show and there’s a lot of heart, a lot of sincerity and soulfulness to this music. It’s kinda cool to be able to express yourself in a personal way with a song that you didn’t write.
A lot of the songs that I’ve been seeing are covers–Delmore Brothers, Dolly Parton, Ray Price, Patsy Cline, even Ray Charles. Do you write your own material? Like you said, Dan Bern wrote a lot the material for Walk Hard; do you guys have any of your own original material that you perform, or is it all traditional?
Willie Watson, who was a member of the Old Crow Medicine Show, has some original songs that he does sometimes in the show. But, for the most part, speaking from my own personal point of view, we have aspirations to write music together, but until I can write a song that’s even close to being as good as “Goodnight, Irene”…It’s a relatively contemporary thing, this idea that if you’re a singer or a musician you gotta write your own music; you have to bury your soul; you have to be the writer, producer, performer. And I think that leaves a lot of great music left to the wayside. My feeling is, there’s gold in them hills, and these songs deserve to be kept alive, not just through recordings but through live experiences with audiences.
And it carries on the whole idea of the oral tradition.
Yeah, exactly! It’s a song cycle. We’re just trying to keep the flame lit. We enjoy doing it, and people have been really appreciative of what we’re doing so far.
Working with Jack White on Walk Hard, is that how you got involved with Third Man Records?
Actually, I met Jack before that. I was a huge White Stripes fan right out of the gate. And then I heard as a goof he was doing “Mr. Cellophane” in concert with the White Stripes, that song I sing in Chicago, the movie. And I was like, “I gotta hear that.” I wrangled some backstage passes, and Jack and I met. We just really hit it off. We’re both from the Midwest; I’m from Chicago, he’s from Detroit. We both had a love of the same kind of music. We both grew up in big Catholic families. We really hit it off. We stayed friends, and then I thought of him for Walk Hard because I thought, Who else, in our day and age, could play Elvis Presley? Who’s the biggest rock star out there? There was only one answer in my mind, so Jack came in and did that, and we just stayed friends.
This music thing, I had been doing one-off shows at this place called Largo, here in L.A., which has been a hotbed for a lot of great people: Aimee Mann, Jon Brion, Fiona Apple, a lot of great comedians over the years. And I’m good friends with the owner. And so I was doing a lot of one off shows and being an emcee, occasionally doing a song with someone, kind of hosting nights of music. And then I started to get more and more into it myself, and I realized, “Wow, we’re getting pretty good; we should record some of this. Who do I know that can record music? I know Jack White!”
So I called him up, and he’s like, “Yeah, how about this weekend? I’m here.” Or “ How about next weekend?” It happened so fast that all of a sudden I was on a plane to Nashville, staying at Jack’s house, and recording at his studio in the back. He was incredibly generous and supportive and encouraging. It’s just been incredible. And now I have two 45s on Third Man and the band is touring. I’m someone who’s made a career out of changing up what I’m doing and dodging expectations. This even surprised me that this is actually happening. It’s always something that I’ve always loved, just playing and singing. Somehow I never thought it would ever come together on this level. There’s something cool about the mission. Not just, “Here’s a song from my new record,” it’s more like: “Here’s a song from the deep roots of the tree of song.”
How did you get involved with the Rogue’s Gallery, that collection of pirate songs and sea shanties?
That was just another random phone call. I know this guy, Hal Willner. I forgot how I initially met Hal. I think I met him when I hosted Saturday Night Live, I can’t remember, but Hal’s been a friend of mine for years now. He actually worked on the music for Step Brothers and, I think, Talladega Nights as well. He was putting this thing together and just called me up. He’s like, “Here’s a list of 200 sea shanties, why don’t you pick one and come in and record it.” It was that easy. And that’s the way I like work. I’m not someone who has a lot of layers of management and entourage. I don’t have an assistant; I don’t have an entourage. I’m just someone who likes to connect with other artists and keep it as simple as possible, hence John Reilly and Friends, the roots music revue.
I don’t know if you meant this for on film or on stage, but you said if there’s ever a revival of Guys and Dolls again, that you would aim for the part of Nathan Detroit.
Well, of course. Anyone who’s ever seen that musical, who’s a man, would want to play that part.
You wouldn’t want to play Sky? That’s Brando.
Yeah…I’m also realistic. The eternal fiance/bachelor. It’s a great part. I grew up doing musicals as a kid, and that’s the one that got away, the one that I didn’t do out of all the classics. Who knows, that thing has kind of been floating around, not going anywhere, for years.
But you’re talking about for the stage, not making a film version of it?
Well,either. I think when I said that we were talking about the movie, because for a while it looked like the movie was going to happen.
After Chicago and the success with that?
Chicago was going to usher in the rebirth of the movie musical and I’m still waiting on that.