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Simon sees lessons in music 

Chicago Daily Law Bulletin
August 17, 2012
By Josh Weinhold

SPRINGFIELD — Before she played banjo, bassoon or piano, Lt. Gov. Sheila J. Simon connected to music in a car.

With no electronic devices to entertain them on long road trips, Simon said her family passed the time by singing songs together.

Her father, former U.S. Sen. Paul Simon, featured a strong bass voice, she said, while her mother, former state Rep. Jeanne Hurley Simon, provided the harmony.

The family belted out show tunes and classic American songs — though the musical selections didn't always appeal to the Simon children, she said.

"My parents would always sing songs that my brother and I thought were disastrously old, that nobody had ever heard of," Simon said. "But they loved them."

Simon, 51, now plays a style of music much more to her liking in her bluegrass band, Loose Gravel. Formed 14 years ago at a backyard party, the quintet played Wednesday at the Illinois State Fair.

In an interview at her Capitol office this week, Simon said getting the busy bandmates together always proved difficult, especially after she took office in 2011.

But making time for music helps keep her life balanced, she said.

"It again reminds me that the best final output involves several inputs," Simon said. "At one time or another, someone's got the melody or ought to be louder — but really, all of us have a responsibility to not be the loudest person around."

Simon, a former prosecutor, Carbondale City Council member and Southern Illinois University School of Law professor, said she first picked up the banjo as a way to unwind after a grueling first year at Georgetown Law School.

The six strings of a guitar always proved tricky, she said, and she found the banjo's five strings easier to handle — and incredibly enjoyable to play.

Simon's musical pursuits began with piano lessons at an early age and continued with bassoon in grade school. Though an "oddball" instrument, she said, it taught her a lot about working with a group.

In a band, the bassoon rarely carries the melody, instead pushing the tempo along and supporting other instruments, she said.

"You have a sense of being responsible for keeping things moving," she said, "and being comfortable not being the star of the show."

Years later, Loose Gravel formed unexpectedly when bandmate Cindy Clark encouraged guests to bring musical instruments to a party instead of food, Simon said.

After one night of playing together, they received an invitation to perform at a neighborhood event "before we had even decided we were a band," she said.

Simon jokes that the group keeps her around not for her musical ability, but for her songwriting.

Simon draws on personal experiences for many of her lyrics, including in "Miles to Makanda," a song the band debuted Wednesday that describes the roads leading to her parents' former home in the tiny town near Carbondale.

Simon, though, said she also aims to inject humor into songs, as she does in "Pope Knop," a song she wrote that imagines what would happen if her then-4-year-old daughter ran the Catholic church.

She also seeks to keep the mood light in professional environments, she said, even at the Capitol.

"There's a whole lot of very serious work that we do," she said, "but we shouldn't consider ourselves too seriously."

Band member Maria Johnson, who plays keyboard and guitar, said Simon's sense of humor helps the group survive stressful times.

"Whatever else is going on, Sheila's just ready to roll with a great attitude for life," said Johnson, an associate music professor at Southern Illinois University Carbondale. "She's always positive, always upbeat."

Van Bowersox, a Champaign resident visiting the fair Wednesday, said he enjoyed the eclectic mix of music Loose Gravel played — but the performance lacked one thing.

"She's missing the bow tie," he said with a laugh, referencing the iconic clothing item worn by Simon's father.