The North Carolina outfit may be nominally a “bluegrass band” but as we learn in a free-wheeling conversation with the members, there’s way more than just traditional ‘grass stylings in the mix for their latest studio album.
BY JORDAN LAWRENCE
It’s a little weird to hear the lead singer of Raleigh, N.C.’s Chatham County Line — one of the most professional and forward-thinking bluegrass bands to emerge this century — speak of the group’s latest record as a work of newfound maturity.
This is an outfit that mastered the bluegrass basics with sleek insistence across its first two records; that littered their game-changing 2008 LP IV with bittersweet love songs (“The Carolinian”), philosophical ruminations (“Chip of a Star”) and politically charged barnstormers (“Birmingham Jail”); that added drums to the driving acoustics of 2010’s Wildwood without tarnishing their music’s reliably refreshing simplicity. By all appearances, Chatham County Line were about as mature as any band could get.
And yet, Dave Wilson insists that they still had growing up to do. After Wildwood, their fifth album in eight years, they slowed down, continuing to tour, but not rushing to record a new batch. Life was catching up with them: Another of their number took the leap and got married; bassist Greg Readling became the father to a baby girl. Having found success early in their 15-year run, the stakes for maintaining it were coming into focus.
“All the sudden it becomes, ‘This is how you’re making your living,’” Wilson explains. “Your experience starts to stack up, and you know the mistakes you’ve made. You know the things you’ve done that have worked. We’re just getting older, and we’ve done this for a lot of years. We’ve played together a lot, and we have life experiences. We’ve read more books and listened to more records. You’re soaking all that up all the time. You just have the gift of hindsight more than anything.”
On Tightrope, the group’s sixth LP, the escalating pressure tightens their focus. Returning exclusively to the acoustic instruments they play onstage — mandolin, banjo, bass and guitar — plus the pedal steel and piano that Readling has long contributed, the new album is a work of confident restraint, a savvy crew returning to their essential strengths after a period of restless experimentation.
That’s not to say that the albumis a retreat to traditional bluegrass. In fact, Chatham have never sounded more unbound by the rigid expectations of genre purists. With minimal instrumentation, the players fashioned a lush and sweeping folk collection. Every quickly strummed mandolin, every lithe banjo ramble, every yearning peel of pedal steel, they’re all deployed with precision, allowing Tightrope — the sparest album in the band’s catalog — to feel like the fullest.
Over the last decade and more, these purposeful players have bolstered their bluegrass chops with rock melodies and pop hooks. They’ve indulged each Christmas in sets of full-on rock ‘n’ roll, touring their electrified lineup across the Southeast. Tightrope builds on these experiences even as it strips back.
“Everybody put a lot of thought into the parts that they wanted to play because they knew that they were going to have to stand onstage and play these things forever,” Wilson offers. “We’re not a jam band. We don’t just make up shit all the time. There’s a little bit of improv going on, but a lot of the parts we just kind of work out.”
This desire to fashion songs that might stand the test of time — both for the audience and for the group playing them — was further stoked when they readied the setlist for Sight & Sound, the live album and concert film they released in 2012. Seeking to include their most important songs, the players had them at the front of their mind when they turned their attention to new material.
The four-year gap between albums also afforded the members a chance to scratch their rock ‘n’ roll itch outside of the group. Wilson and Readling revived Stillhouse, the folk-rock outfit they played with around the time that Chatham County Line were first taking off, fashioning songs that work a lot like the ones in their main band and hitching them to electric guitars, wistful keys and striding drums. Meanwhile, mandolinist John Teer and banjo player Chandler Holt took their own rock foray when they formed the similarly charming Letter Jackets.
“You realize just how fucking lucky you are,” Wilson says. “Why keep looking down the street at the electric guitar in the window? That’s fun, and we can get those ya-yas out anytime we want, but we want to travel like this and stand onstage and inspire people and educate and amuse them with what we can do with just simple instruments and voices and words.”
Across several stints in different locations — recording studios, Wilson’s basement, the auditorium of a historic school building in nearby Hillsborough — Chatham painstakingly fashioned their new songs. But they didn’t remove spontaneity from the process. “Tightrope of Love” emerged when Wilson recorded a rough banjo instrumental by Holt onto his phone, taking it home and singing over parts of it. “Should Have Known” and “Ships at Sea” were conceived during the formal recording session at Durham, N.C.’s Sound Pure Studios.
The resulting tunes are surprisingly diverse. “The Traveler” puts a somber twist on your typical journeyman ballad, lilting through laconic strums before hitting the road with a potent mandolin chop. “I know that woman, she waits for me,” Wilson moans, “For I laid the stone that she’s underneath.” “Tightrope of Love” rollicks with wry intensity, comparing a tenuous romance to the plight of a doomed aerialist — “I did it all without a net,” Wilson chuckles. “Ships at Sea” lets its stark arrangement do most of the work: The piercing beauty of piano and fiddle evoke the grandiose solitude of hearts left adrift, an epic gesture gleaned from humble instrumentation.
But the album’s best moments are marked by some of the group’s most mature songwriting. “Hawk” is a stately portrait of a World War II pilot whose best years are behind him. “It’s been 60 years or more since he’s been up in the air,” Wilson sings. “He spends his years now flying a dusty old armchair.” But the afterlife, the singer hopes, will reward this hero’s valor: “Hawk is in a place where he’ll never have to land.”
It’s a song that succeeds by way of grave eloquence, something this group simply couldn’t muster 10 or 12 years ago. Thus far, Chatham County Line have only gotten better with age, a gift that Wilson knows is all too rare.
“I’m really interested what the future holds,” he says. “Literally every single artist music-wise, everything turns to shit once they get out of their 20s, so I don’t really know what to promise anybody. But we hope for the best. Sometimes songwriters get better.”