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John Lamb, Published June 10 2012

John C. Reilly takes the stage with his guitar, his friends and his signature charm

FARGO – John C. Reilly is best known as a character actor, playing likable oddballs opposite bigger stars like Tom Cruise (“Days of Thunder,” “Magnolia”), Leonardo DiCaprio (“What’s Eating Gilbert Grape,” “The Aviator”) and Will Ferrell (“Talladega Nights,” “Step-Brothers”) in ensemble productions.

Reilly takes center stage at the Fargo Theatre on Friday night with a very different ensemble: John C. Reilly and Friends.

When not playing to cameras over the past few years, Reilly and a core group of friends have been playing classic Americana tunes to small club crowds in California.

A Chicago native, Reilly grew up performing in musicals (he was nominated for an Oscar for his role in “Chicago”), but his mother favored Tin Pan Alley tunes and his father Irish folk songs. The young actor was drawn to pre-1950s blues, and followed that music back down to its Southern country roots.

“This music, like anything you love, you start to peel back like an onion, and you realize the things that came before it that allowed that music to happen and you get further and further into the roots of what you’re drawn to. And then you put together a revue and you take it on the road.”

“And then you put together a revue and you take it on the road,” he adds with a laugh, calling the show his “roots music revue.”

His supporting cast of characters has grown to include, among others, guitarist Willie Watson (formerly of Old Crow Medicine Show), Soul Coughing bassist Sebastian Steinberg, singer Becky Stark and singer/guitarist and Grand Forks native Tom Brosseau.

(Reilly also performs with neo-folkie Dan Bern, who’s not traveling on these dates.)

He met Brosseau through a mutual friend, and once he heard him sing, Reilly knew he wanted to work with the North Dakotan.

“I just about fell off of my chair when I heard Tom’s voice,” the actor explains. “I’m a big fan of the Everly Brothers and close-harmony acts. I have a pretty high voice myself, and it’s pretty hard to find someone – a man anyway – who can sing as high or higher than me. Honestly, I didn’t think there was anyone out there who could sing like Tom does. It was a real revelation.”

With Stark, he performs early country duets, he says. “Similar to the thing Porter Wagoner and Dolly Parton used to do.”

After developing those two musical relationships, he decided to take it to the clubs.

“People don’t know what to expect when they come out,” Reilly says. “They might know my name from film work, but they’re not quite sure what to expect. But it seems like people are pleasantly surprised.”

One of the roles people may expect more of is rocker Dewey Cox, whom he portrayed in the fictitious musical biopic, “Walk Hard.” Reilly’s singing and stage performance were so likable he earned a Grammy nomination and even took the act on the road for a short tour.

This time around it’s all stripped down to just John C. Reilly and Friends. No big production, no bigger-than-life ego and very little talking between songs.

“Being an actor I do find it more comfortable to hide behind a character,” he said of first touring as Dewey Cox. “But I’ve gotten accustomed to it. … I just really let the music speak for itself.”

While the music is often older than the 47-year-old Reilly, much of it could be new to audiences as he and his friends dig back for golden oldies and even some obscure nuggets.

He recorded the Delmore Brothers’ “Gonna Lay Down My Old Guitar,” a single with Brosseau and Ray Price’s “I’ll be There if You Want,” with Stark. The recordings are available on vinyl 45s only, produced by Jack White, who played Elvis in “Walk Hard.”

“He has really great taste in terms of roots music,” Reilly says of working with White as a producer. “He’s someone who really wears his influence on his sleeve.”

Reilly hopes to record a full album of material, but says the different schedule of his musical partners makes that problematic.

“It’s like herding kittens getting this band together,” he says.

Even without a full-length album to his name, Reilly feels he’s being taken seriously by his peers in the business and not just as another star with an ego-driven side-project.

Last week he was tabbed to announce the nominees for the Americana Music Awards.

(Jason Isbell, Gillian Welch and Steve Earle received the most nominations and all play Fargo in July.)When he walked in before the show started, singer/guitarist Jim Lauderdale greeted him with, “Now there’s an Americana actor, right there!”

“I’ve been really happy with how I’ve been embraced by everybody. I didn’t get involved in this to become more famous or certainly make money. It’s a losing proposition money-wise.,” Reilly says, laughing. “I did it for the love of this music and because I’m enthusiastic about it, and people have responded in kind. Certainly the musicians have really welcomed me.”

Readers can reach Forum reporter John Lamb at (701) 241-5533