John C. Reilly Talks His Musical Roots, His Friends and Jack White

John C. Reilly Talks His Musical Roots, His Friends and Jack White
It's easy to roll one's eyes that yet another actor is making music, but with John C. Reilly in the equation, the end result isn't a foregone conclusion. His Americana folk trio, John C. Reilly and Friends, is no vanity project, despite that fact that he plays the titular hero. In fact, Reilly and his bandmates Becky Stark (Lavender Diamond) and Tom Brosseau refer to themselves as the "Eternal Magic Preservation Society," devoting their musical craft and star power to playing the songs of the past.

Last November, the trio released two singles on Jack White's label, Third Man Records, and have performed a handful of times since then. However, many fans likely got their first taste of Reilly's musical chops in Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story, where he plays a lovable screw-up modelled after Johnny Cash named Dewey Cox. While the 2007 flick wasn't a box office success, it established Reilly as a uniquely gifted musician.

Speaking of his project's live show in a recent Exclaim! interview, Reilly explains, "The people who come and scream, 'Shake and bake!' are shocked when I'm suddenly doing these country songs and this old folk music, but I would say 100 percent of the time by the end of it, there's this incredible amount of love coming back from the audience. It's a really special time. And it's not like I'm all serious and don't acknowledge the funny quality of me being there, but I'm also just tryin' to give this gift to the audience, just keep this music alive."

Reilly's dedication to the traditional revival comes from his parents (Mom loved standards, Dad loved Irish folk) and his own immersion in the roots of blues. He spent his childhood singing in musicals and performing, played harmonica in an L.A. blues band, and picked up the guitar when he was 19. He didn't play much in public, but got a crash course in mastering performance anxiety when cast in the Robert Altman film A Prairie Home Companion, a fictional behind-the-scenes look at the live U.S. radio show of the same name.

"I was freaking out," Reilly laughs. "You're up there on stage with some of the best musicians in the country, you know? Pat Donohue plays guitar for the Prairie Home Band, and he's standing there behind me. But actually, as nervous as it made me, it also made me feel really supported. I knew if I blew something, they'd be there to catch me and keep the song goin' if I really messed up."

Reilly's continued to rely on his gut instinct to get by with a little help from his friends. After getting word that White was performing a version of "Mr. Cellophane" (based on Reilly's Oscar-nominated performance in Chicago), the two became friends and mutual admirers of each other's work, leading Reilly to cast White as Elvis in Walk Hard. When Reilly decided to start recording, it was a natural fit.

"We're both from the Midwest -- I'm from Chicago, he's from Detroit -- and we both were raised Catholic in big families, like a lot of the same music and we became friends," Reilly recalls. "Then I realized, 'Wow, Jack's got this whole record label. Wouldn't it be cool to go there and record this 45?' So I pitched him the idea of recording, and he was like, 'Yeah, come down. This weekend or next weekend?' It was that easy. I just went down with Becky and Tom and recorded a whole bunch of songs and picked two for each record.

"Jack's been really incredibly supportive. He let us play at South By Southwest at the Third Man showcase. It's a really, really cool company. Jack's like the Willy Wonka of rock'n'roll. It's such an amazing, creative world there."

A quick three-show tour up the West Coast finds Reilly and friends stopping in Vancouver on May 27 at the Rio Theatre -- the exact same night, in fact, that White will be performing a sold-out show across town.

"Jack White is my chief benefactor who I love and whose show is amazing," Reilly laughs. "We tried to combine it, and we tried to do them in the same venue and it just didn't work out... So what I'm saying is, if you can't get tickets to Jack White, please come see John C. Reilly. It won't be the same, but it will also be very good. I can't guarantee Jack will show up at the show. If fact, there's a high percentage chance that he won't, but I will tell a great Jack White story at my concert."