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Roots musician celebrates Forgottonia in song

Chris Vallillo

Macomb-based musician Chris Vallillo started writing the song “Forgottonia” in 1980 as he worked on his first recording.

But he didn’t finish the song at the time. Instead, it got set aside and was – no pun intended -- forgotten about.

“In the haste of doing the recording, producing the recording, and everything that’s involved in that, the notes from that song just ended up stuck in a drawer. And they sat there until 2017 when I was cleaning out the house after my folks passed, and I came across them,” Vallillo said.

“I realized that I really captured the essence of small town, rural Illinois almost perfectly. At that point I decided I better finish the song.”

Now the completed song is part of a new show – also titled Forgottonia -- that will premiere on Saturday, July 20, at the Hainline Theatre on the Western Illinois University campus in Macomb.

The show begins at 7 p.m. Tickets are $20 and can be ordered online.

Vallillo described the show as a musical journey through the people and places of rural Illinois just as the last vestiges of the old Forgottonia slowly eroded away.

“I think the point is to celebrate the heritage, to re-envision what rural Illinois is all about, and to express it through the eyes of someone who isn’t a product of it,” he said.

A multi-media performance

The new show will feature original songs that Vallillo wrote about west central Illinois over the past 35 years.

He will share the stage with a couple other crackerjack musicians: jazz mandolin player Don Stiernberg and acoustic bass player Marc Edelstein.

The trio will be accompanied by a series of photos of Forgottonia that will be projected throughout the performance.

Those are the work of award-winning photographer Tim Schroll.

“I’ve always said that Tim does visually what I try to do musically,” Vallillo said.

Vallillo went through thousands of Schroll’s photos. The two then discussed the images that each picked out, they talked about the music, and the show then started coming together.

Vallillo said he enjoyed working with Schroll because of his sense of proportion and his sense of light and dark, which are all critical to the black and white photos.

“He literally thinks about the shots and knows what time of year he wants to shoot a spot at because of the right kind of light, he knows the weather conditions he wants, and he will wait six months to find that perfect thing before he then goes out to make the shot,” Vallillo said.

He called it an old school, Ansel Adams approach to photography.

“I think that heightens what he does to a much higher level of art,” Vallillo said.

Remembering Forgottonia

Forgottonia was a political stunt in the early 1970s to draw attention to the lack of funding for road improvements in western Illinois.

It worked, and Vallillo said he arrived in the mid-70s on the first wave of highway funding that came into the region.

“I was hired as a staff archeologist for Western Illinois University to work on what would become – 30 years later, mind you – the Kansas City – Chicago expressway,” he said.

Vallillo is not a native of Forgottonia. His family moved around quite a bit when he was young, and he graduated from Beloit College with a degree in archaeology.

Some people did not like the term Forgottonia more than 50 years ago, and a few still fight against it today.

But Vallillo called it a brilliant political act that celebrates the area’s heritage while publicizing that the region is isolated and often overlooked when it comes to state and federal funding.

“And now, people are embracing that as a fact that, if you want to know what small town America life is, come to unforgettable Forgottonia because we live it every day,” he said.

“I love the idea that people use art and theater as a political tool as opposed to violence.”

You can learn more about the Forgottonia movement by listening to the first episode of TSPR’s Welcome to Forgottonia podcast.

How the show came about

Vallillo said the idea for his show came out of an arts conference in Galesburg, where he met Erin Eveland, Executive Director of The Hub Arts and Cultural Center in Rushville.

She invited him to do a concert at The Hub. He agreed to do a “hometown” show featuring only music he’d written about the region when he lived in Rushville.

“We did that and it went surprisingly well,” he said.

The Western Illinois Museum in Macomb then asked him to repeat the performance, and he started thinking about developing it into a themed show.

“Which allowed me to go back and rework some of this material that I hadn’t seen and played in 30, 35 years -- some of it I’ve almost never played live -- and I was really kind of enchanted by that idea of going back and re-examining what I had done over the years,” Vallillo said.

Illinois Humanities awarded Vallillo two Foreground Rural Initiative grants to make the production possible. He is renting the Hainline Theatre for the performance, and Vallillo is the songwriter, arranger, show runner, producer, technical director, and more for the show.

Tri States Public Radio produced this story.  TSPR relies on financial support from our readers and listeners in order to provide coverage of the issues that matter to west central Illinois, southeast Iowa, and northeast Missouri. As someone who values the content created by TSPR's news department please consider making a financial contribution.

Rich is TSPR's News Director.