Chris Vallillo

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Chris Vallillo
Chris Vallillo.jpg
Chris Vallillo
Background information
Occupation(s)singer-songwriter, musician
InstrumentsGuitar, Dobro, vocals
Years active33

Chris Vallillo is a nationally acclaimed singer/songwriter and folk musician who strives to "make the people and places of "unmetropolitan" America come to life in song." Having spent the last 30 years in the rural Midwest, he developed an affinity for American roots music. Performing on six-string and bottleneck slide guitars and harmonica, Vallillo writes and performs original, contemporary, and traditional songs and creates musical narratives as a portrait of the history and lifestyles of the Midwest.


Early Life- College[edit]

Chris Vallillo was born in Hammond, Indiana on August 3, 1954. His father was a civil engineer and the transitory nature of that profession meant that the Vallillo family moved around every couple of years. In addition to Hammond, Vallillo lived in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania - Flint, Michigan – Hamilton, Ohio - Newcastle, Pennsylvania - Buffalo, New York and Rochester, New York. His earliest musical memory is that of seeing singing cowboys on TV, which engendered a yearning to own and play a guitar. Aged ten, his parents presented him an old archtop Kay guitar. He went on take lessons for around 6 months. The family were living near Detroit at the time, and Vallillo recalls hearing a lot of Motown music, plus it was the era of the Beatles U.S. invasion and the end of the folk music boom. Mississippi John Hurt, John Fahey, the Beatles and a whole range of singer songwriters all inspired Vallillo's musical interest.

In college, Vallillo met another folk musician, banjo player, Steve Elliott, and they later formed a bluegrass band, The Granite Mountain Sluice Box Boys – named after a local landmark – and played college venues and parties. Prescott closed during Vallillo's third year, and he completed his degree course at Beloit College in Wisconsin. For the next three years he went on to work for the Western Illinois University in Macomb as an archaeologist. In Macomb, Vallillo became acquainted with members of the country rock band Poker Flatts becoming the sound man, and later joined the Carthage, Illinois country rock band Bear Creek as a full-time member. It was during the late-seventies, the onset of the twilight years for country-rock that Vallillo began writing songs and focusing more on music than archaeology. When Ken Carlysle invited Vallillo to join his band The Cadillac Cowboys, he walked away and never looked back. He spent the next five years as their guitarist and vocalist performing over 300 nights a year throughout the Midwest with occasional gigs in New York City and in Key West, Florida.

1980- 1990[edit]

In 1980 the band released the album "Live At The Black Stallion." The band had four songwriters– Vallillo, Ron Kimbrow, Ken Carlysle and Lonnie Ratliff – and went on to release a string of 45 rpm singles. Pedal steel player Marty Muse, who has been based in Austin for many years, was a band member during the early eighties. Vallillo left the band in late 1983 and began working as a soloist. In his early days as a solo act, Vallillo performed songs by writers such as Guy Clark, Townes Van Zandt, Gram Parsons and Jerry Jeff Walker, but gradually brought his own compositions into sets, particularly after making the transition to folk venues. In 1985 Vallillo was a Kerrville Folk Festival, New Folk finalist. His song "Goodbye Independent Trucker" was included in a documentary about Bushnell, a small Illinois town as was his isntrumentalinstrumental "The Western Illinois Rag."

In 1987 Vallillo released his first recording of original music, "The Western Illinois Rag." The recording sessions took place in Experimental Music Studio at the University of Illinois at Champaign, home of the first electronic music in the early 60’s. Support players included, a fifteen-year-old fiddle player, Alison Krauss and members of the original Union Station (there are currently plans to reissue the recording on CD). The following year Vallillo served as the director of “The Schuyler Arts Folk Music Collecting Project” for the Illinois Arts Council and the Schuyler Arts Council, carried out in conjunction with the Library of Congress Folklife Centre. He interviewed and recorded oral histories and performances from the last of the pre-radio generation in Western Illinois. The collection was accepted into the Library of Congress Folklife Archives in 1988. This would prove to be very influential in his future work as both a musician and a songwriter.

1990- 2000[edit]

In 1990, Vallillo was invited to become the performing host and co-producer of what became the award-winning syndicated radio program “Rural Route 3”. A “live” musical performance show that was recorded with a studio audience, it featured some of the finest names in acoustic and singer-songwriter music. Vallillo hosted and performed on each program along with two musical guests. The show ran for seven years, and featured such luminaries as Bob Gibson, John Hartford, Alison Krause and Union Station, John Gorka, Tom Russel, Tish Hinojosa, The Austin Lounge Lizards, Norman and Nancy Blake, John McKuen and Trout Fishing in America... among others. At its peak, the show was heard on over 60 stations from Boston to Puerto Rica and Alaska. It remained on the airwaves till 1998, and in 1995 the program gained the National Federation of Community Broadcaster's Bronze Reel Award. In its final season, the National Federation of Community Broadcaster's awarded Rural Route 3 its Special Merit Award.

During this time, Vallillo composed, performed and recorded the soundtrack music to the 13-part TV series “Illinois Historic Panorama” [1992/93]. He also went on to pen the theme song and soundtrack music for the 22-part TV series “The Civil War and Reconstruction” [1993/94] and continued to perform and tour full-time.

2000- Present[edit]

During the early years of 2000 Vallillo continued to perform throughout the Midwest. In 2001, he was again tapped by the Illinois Arts Council to conduct the fieldwork for the Illinois Mississippi River Valley Project, documenting the work of artists along the section of the Mississippi River that passes through the state. In 2003, he produced and hosted the Illinois Mississippi River Valley Project Festival featuring performers documented in the first phase of the project.

In 2006, Vallillo was to host and perform on Chicago Public Television's Arts Across Illinois Centerstage, Live! It was also during that year that he took on the first of 2 tours as the Illinois State Scholar for the Smithsonian Institution's traveling exhibition on Roots Music, New Harmonies.

Throughout this entire time, Vallillo continued to perform and record full-time. His first project, “The Western Illinois Rag” was followed in 1990 by the recording “The Putnam Museum Concerts”. This recording was created from a series of concerts given by Vallillo in Davenport, Iowa and focused on material documented in the first collecting project. In 1995 Vallillo teamed up with Grammy winning producer Rich Adler and traveled to Nashville in between taping sessions for the “Rural Route 3” to work on a new, original music project. The result was the 1995 release “Best Of All Possible Worlds” which featured some of the finest acoustic players in Nashville; folks like Roy Huskey Jr. on bass, Kenny Malone on drums, Rob Ikes on dobro, David Schnaufer on dulcimer and Andrea Zahn on violin. “Best Of All Possible Worlds” was well received and generated airplay across the US and Europe.

In 2001, a family tragedy led Vallillo to return to his rural roots to record "Aural Traditions" [2001]. This also marked a strong move into bottleneck slide style of playing and featured music written and played between the 1860s and the 1930s by folks like Stephen Foster, The Carter Family and Jimmie Rogers. This would mark the first of an ongoing series of self-produced recordings to follow. Vallillo cut the tracks in his home studio, then mixed the project at First Bass Audio in Macomb, IL.

His 2005 release "The Dance,” represented a return to original and contemporary singer-songwriter material. Like “Aural Traditions”, “The Dance” was recorded in Studio 13, his home recording studio, but for the first time, this project was mixed there as well. It contains seven original tunes plus songs by John Gorka, Garnet Rogers, Greg Brown, Joel Mabus and Stephen Foster and was released in the early summer of 2005.

Immediately following the 2005 release of the Dance, Vallillo began researching, writing and performing a one-man show on the life of Abraham Lincoln. The resulting project, “Abraham Lincoln in Song” would go on to receive the endorsement of the Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Commission and would result in a recording of the music from the show that would go on to chart at #10 on the Billboard Bluegrass Album Charts in March 2008 and receive excellent critical review.

Vallillo performed that show at hundreds of venues across the country from the Abraham Lincoln and Gerald R. Ford Presidential Museums to The Krannert Center for the Performing Arts, The Ravinia Festival, The Gettysburg National Battlefield Museum and President Lincoln’s Cottage (Lincoln’s summer White House).

Following the success of the Lincoln show, Vallillo turned towards a new project. Many reviews had complimented his bottleneck slide work and expressed a desire to hear more of it. With that in mind, Vallillo began to write and record his follow up recording,”The Last Day of Winter”.

This recording would feature 9 instrumentals and 4 original songs recorded on Vallillo's extensive collection of vintage instruments including a 1924 Gibson Tenor Lute, a 1936 wood bodied Dobro, a 1929 National Triolian (the oldest known to exist according to National Guitars) and a custom made reproduction of a turn of the century Lyon and Healy 9 string parlor guitar.


A recipient of a 1986 Illinois Arts Council Artist Fellowship Award for music composition, Vallillo was also a nominee for the Illinois Arts Council's 1987 Governor's Award for Individual Artist. In 1987 he conducted the Schuyler Arts Folk Music Project to document the last of the pre-radio generation recordings. These recordings were accepted into the American Folklife Collection at the Library of Congress.

Full List of Awards[edit]

  • 1985: Finalist at the Kerrville Folk Festival Songwriting Competition, Kerrville, Texas.
  • 1986: Illinois Arts Council Artists Fellowship Award for Music Composition.
  • 1987: Nominated for the Illinois Arts Council's Governor's Award for Individual Artist.
  • 1995: National Federation of Community Broadcaster's Bronze Reel Award for National Music/Entertainment Series for the Rural Route 3 Radio Show.
  • 1998: National Federation of Community Broadcaster's Special Merit Award for National Music/Entertainment Series for the Rural Route 3 Radio Show.
  • 2001: Administrative Fellowship, Illinois Arts Council to conduct the Illinois Mississippi River Valley Project.
  • 2007: Quality of Life Award for collecting historic music and producing musical events reflelctive of the roots music of rural Illinois.

Special Projects[edit]

From 1990 through 1998 he served as the performing host and co-producer of the nationally distributed, award-winning public radio performance series Rural Route 3 where he performed next to (and with) a number of contemporary and traditional folk musicians. His most recent project, a one-man show titled Abraham Lincoln in Song, received the endorsement of the Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Commission and the accompanying CD of music reached #10 on Billboard’s Bluegrass Album Chart in March 2008.

Full List of Special Projects[edit]

  • 1987: The Schuyler Arts Folk Music Collecting Project. Designed and carried out a music collecting project for the Illinois Arts Council and the Schuyler Arts Council in co-operation with the Library of Congress Folklife Center. The collection was accepted into the Library of Congress Folklife Archives in 1988.
  • 1992-1993: Illinois Historic Panorama. Composed, performed, and recorded the soundtrack for the 13-part public television series on the history of Illinois from the glaciers to the present.
  • 1993: Echoes Of A Country Schoolhouse. Commissioned by the Gardener Museum of Architecture, Quincy, IL to co-write and perform in a 2-person interactive play on the one room schoolhouse experience.
  • 1993-1994: The Civil War and Reconstruction. 22-part public television series. Composed, performed and recorded the theme song, arranged, performed and recorded period music on vintage instruments for the sound track.
  • 1990-1997: Host and co-producer of the award-winning nationally syndicated public radio series Rural Route 3.
  • October 2000: Performer and Producer of the On the Farm Harvest Festival for the Museum of Science and Industry, Chicago, IL.
  • 2001-2002: Carried out the field work for the Illinois Arts Council's Illinois Mississippi River Valley Project, designed to document the artists along the Mississippi River.
  • 2003: Co-producing the Folk Songs of Illinois CD for the Illinois Humanities Council's Heritage Music Project CD series.
  • 2003: Artistic producer and performer for the Illinois Mississippi River Valley Project Festival, a weekend of workshops and performances August 15 and 16, in Galena, IL.
  • 2006: Host and performer onChicago Public Television's Arts Across Illinois Centerstage, Live!
  • 2006-2008:Illinois State Scholar for the Smithsonian Institution's traveling exhibition on Roots Music, New Harmonies.

He recently completed his second term as the Illinois State Scholar for the Smithsonian Institution’s traveling exhibit on roots music New Harmonies and working on a new instrumental bottleneck slide guitar CD.


Album Name Release Date
The Western Illinois Rag 1987
The Putnam Museum Concerts 1990
Best of All Possible Worlds 1995
Aural Traditions 2001
The Dance 2005
Abraham Lincoln in Song 2008
The Last Day of Winter 2013

External links[edit]