England moves to Cairo and the songs flow
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
"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
"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
"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
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