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Vallillo to share Midwest wisdom through music

The second track on Chris Vallillo’s 2005 album “The Dance” titled “Hopelessly Midwestern,” appropriately describes the life and career of the Macomb, Illinois-based singer-songwriter. For the past several decades, Vallillo has been traveling across the rural American Midwest studying and performing its music—yet Vallillo has never found his way to Grinnell. That is, until now, as Vallillo will be in town this weekend for a series of workshops and performances, culminating in a 7:30 p.m. show this Saturday, November 5, at the Grinnell Arts Center—926 Broad Street—co-sponsored by the College’s Center for Prairie Studies and the Grinnell Area Arts Council.

Throughout his career as a musician and a student of Midwestern culture, Vallillo has undertaken a wide variety of work. He worked on anthropological research for the Schuyler Arts Folk Music Project, in which he chronicled the stories and musical history of the “pre-radio” generation of rural Illinois, a foray into public radio as a host of the show Rural Route 3. Most recently, Vallillo concluded a project entitled “Abraham Lincoln in Song” that depicts the life, times, and ideology of the president through music.

Vallillo has also released albums of his own original work, namely The Dance and 1995’s “Best of All Possible Worlds.”

Throughout his career, Vallillo has employed a diversity of styles and sounds. The musician, who plays six-string and bottleneck slide guitar, as well as harmonica, draws heavily on the traditions of roots and American folk music throughout his work. His sound ranges from the melancholy acoustic melodies of The Dance’s “Some Sweet Day” to the rock-tinged drive of Best of All Possible World’s title-track.

What truly characterize Vallillo’s work, however, are his lyrics, which foreground the stories of the working-class rural Americans Vallillo has lived among and performed with throughout his life.

“[Vallillo’s music is about] ordinary people, particularly working people, … about memory and about place,” said Professor Jonathan Andelson, Director of the Center for Prairie Studies.

Stories of Midwestern farm life abound in Vallillo’s work, such as “Final Harvest,” which depicts a rural community coming together to support a poor family whose breadwinner was killed in an accident, and “The Heartland Prayer,” which invokes a farmer’s prayer for plentiful rain and an end to hard times.

Vallillo’s lyrical content is by no means confined to the life of the 21st century American either. Whether in his renderings of classic American folk songs or in original pieces like Best of All Possible World’s “The Cholera Cemetery,” which tells the story of a deadly epidemic of years past, Vallillo’s work is infused with a sense of history and a true awareness of Middle-American cultural heritage.

Ultimately, what Vallillo presents is a body of work deeply rooted in Midwestern history and the lifestyle of the common, rural American, music that Andelson perceives to fit perfectly with the mission of the Center for Prairie Studies.

“The Center was founded … to help better connect the campus community with our location,” Andelson said. “I was just completely struck by how perfect a fit [Vallillo] was for Prairie Studies’ idea. Because they’re songs about the Midwest, about real down-to-earth situations.”

Vallillo will have a busy schedule over the weekend, with a music workshop on Friday at Grinnell High School, a show from 3:00-4:00 p.m. that afternoon at Saints Rest Coffee House, another concert on Saturday morning at the Mayflower Homes retirement community and finally, the Saturday evening performance at the Grinnell Arts Center.

Tickets for Saturday night’s concert are available for free at the Bucksbaum ticket office or at the Grinnell Arts Center with a valid college ID.

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