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England moves to Cairo and the songs flow


Andy Downing
Published February 17, 2006

 
Cairo, Ill. sits at the farthest tip of the state, a leisurely six-hour drive south of Chicago on I-57. The city, ideally situated at the convergence of the Mississippi and Ohio rivers, is the Great American Metropolis that never was.

Once a bustling town of 20,000, the population has recently fallen to 3,600 while political leaders continue the infighting that has marred the city since its 1855 inception.

Stace England, formerly of Chicago's House Afire, ventured into this environment to make his latest album, "Greetings From Cairo, Illinois" (Gnashville Sounds Records).

"I've lost track of how many times someone has mentioned that when you reach Cairo, it just feels different," says England, who now makes his home in Cobden, Ill., about 40 miles north of "Little Egypt." "There's never really a dull decade in Cairo. All through its history, there has been trauma, turmoil, lynchings, vigilante groups. It's a fascinating place on many levels."

England began his research in earnest back in 2000, but quickly found that many locals were "wary of another outsider" exploiting the town's troubled history. Over the course of three years, through sheer persistence, the singer-songwriter extracted stories from the townspeople--who often shared their tales over a hot barbecue and a cold brew. He supplemented the residents' words with outside research, combing through libraries as if he "were working on a graduate thesis," as co-producer Mike Lescelius puts it.

What emerged was a conflicted portrait of political corruption, broken promises and, especially, racial tension.

"It's a very complex place because it's at this point where North meets South," says England. "When a lot of the true civil rights struggles in the American South were ending, they were still going on in Cairo. Right up until 1973-74, you still had boycotts and street marches. I knew some of that went on, but the degree to which it happened is really remarkable."

"Greetings" doesn't shy away from this difficult subject matter: "Equal Opportunity Lynch Mob" tells the murder of Will "Froggy" James in harrowing detail; "White Hats" recounts the formation of a white vigilante group that was equipped with "white hats and minds full of hate"; "Jesse's Comin' to Town" is a tongue-in-cheek ode to Jesse Jackson, who stopped in Cairo for two days to pose for the television cameras and promptly left, forgetting both the city and its struggle.

Musically, the album is a journey through time brought to life with the assistance of more than 50 musicians from all over Southern Illinois. It opens with the 1850s spiritual "Goin' Down To Cairo," a song that "O Brother, Where Art Thou's" Pappy O'Daniel would've assuredly referred to as "old-timey," and progresses to the rockabilly of "Prosperity Train," buoyed by roaring vocals from Jason and the Scorchers frontman Jason Ringenberg.

The closing track, a battered-but-hopeful "Can't We All Get Along," offers some hope for the city's future, with England singing, "We've been fighting for so long/ It's killing this town."

"Maybe [England] is more optimistic," says Lescelius. "But looking at the state of affairs [in Cairo], it seems like it has got a long way to go to keep from sliding off into the rivers."

England, who grew to love the town and its embattled citizens during the five years he spent working on the project, sees the situation a bit differently.

"I sense that there is a tipping point," says England. "I don't know that I'll see a resurgence in my lifetime, but I think the pendulum will swing and eventually it can become a nice little town. That's my ultimate hope."

Stace England and the Cairo Project Band, 9 p.m. Saturday, Horseshoe, 4115 N. Lincoln Ave. Free (donations); 773-549-9292.

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