Notes from the Road with Chris Vallillo
by Chris Vallillo, Road Scholars Speaker
Read Time 5 minutes
September 8, 2023
“His passion for history and dedication to his craft permeate a room the second he takes the stage.” –Britnee Eccles, Events Manager, Lock 16 Visitor Center
On May 14th, 2023, I headed north to LaSalle, Ill. to present a Road Scholar performance at the Lock 16 Visitor’s Center in La Salle, IL. As I recall, it was a particularly beautiful day to be driving through rural, IL; temperatures were mild, there were perfectly clear, cerulean skies, and the landscape was covered with that brilliant green you only get in the spring when the land is covered with new growth.
Today I would be presenting my first performance of a new show I am working on called Forgottonia. It’s an intimate look at rural Illinois through the original music I’ve written over the past 35 years. It will ultimately be presented as a staged theatrical performance in 2024 but I’ve included this new show in my 2023 offerings for Road Scholars as a way to workshop and develop the show. Being able to perform a new show in front of small, live audiences is critical to working out kinks and exploring the material. This would be my beta test, if you will; that first moment when you find out how what you envisioned in your head translates to a live audience. I’d long since selected the material and worked out the flow of the show content and music wise, but the connecting sections, the narrations that are the glue that makes the difference between a show and a song cycle, were still a work in progress that would all depend on the audience reactions.
The idea behind the Forgottonia show, is to explore the changes rural Illinois has gone through in the last 40 years as chronicled through the music I wrote throughout that time. The name “Forgottonia” first came to Western Illinois in 1972 when sixteen counties declared the creation of the independent nation of Forgottonia in protest of the lack of tax dollars returning to the region. The plan was to secede from the Union, declare war on the United States, immediately surrender, and then apply for foreign aid. It was nothing but political theater, but the story was picked up by the national media, and to everyone’s surprise, it worked! I first came to this region in 1976 as an archaeologist on the first wave of funding to come from that protest and it was like stepping back in time 40 years. I was just enchanted by the region and it would become the focus of my music for the next 40 years. This new show would be my chance to dive deeper and explore that body of work.
Now, as an artist, you never really know what to expect at a Road Scholar performance. Most of these performances take place in nontraditional spaces, often presented by volunteer organizations without the staff and resources to properly promote a show. Often, it’s an act of faith. You cast your bread upon the waters and hope for the best. But for this show, the presenter, the I and M Canal Corridor Association hit it out of the ballpark! Not only did they make use of social media and flyers, but they also got an article both before and after the show in two different local papers. I’d done an email blast to my own mail list and social media and as a result, we had a full house.
I performed in an area that is usually set up for an orientation room for the site but with the larger crowd, we were able to move separating panels and open up the area to include the gift shop/restaurant space (flexibility is the key to success!).
I had been on the fence about how to present the narrative segments of this show. I was interested in creating a more free-form presentation, in a more relaxed, storytelling, conversational style. While several of the songs already had fairly well-defined stories to set up the song, many, purposely, did not. Part of the idea was to begin trying out different ways to present the songs and to approach the show as a whole. And believe me, there’s nothing like a live performance with its immediate audience reaction, to focus the mind and help you make the best choices!
As I began to perform, I was delighted to find that the performance was very well received by the audience and, based on their reactions, the narrations began to gel and take shape. Retired grade school principal Peg Reagan was among those in attendance who commented with this to say “Chris has a deep respect for and ability to capture ‘stories of the ages’. After performing his song “The River Road," I overheard the couple in front of me say, “We need to drive that road”.
I took questions about the music and the instruments and had a short meet and greet after the show and got to hear folks' thoughts and comments. Rich Renik, an on-air personality at 98.3 WCCQ – 1340 WJOL shared this with me: ”While not a music critic, I know what I like. From the very first song through 'Forgottonia' to 'The Walnut Fiddle,' the concert took form and when the songs ended, the words remained.” That was just the reaction I was hoping for.
All in all, this stands out as one of my favorite Road Scholars performances in years. I’ll use his experience to continue building the idea of using music as a vehicle to explore a subject or theme… this time, on the theme of rural Illinois.
About Notes from the Road
This series captures the stories of members of Illinois Humanities’ Road Scholars Speakers Bureau. Since 1997, Illinois writers, storytellers, historians, folklorists, musicians, and living history actors, among others, have shared their expertise and enthusiasm as Road Scholars Speakers with people throughout our state and supported local nonprofit organizations by presenting free cultural and educational programs to local audiences. Learn more about our Road Scholars Speakers Bureau program at ILHumanities.org/RoadScholars.