Chatham County Line
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Chatham County Line

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Band Americana Bluegrass

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"Dead Alive"

Indie kids are finally tuning in the Grateful Dead. At least, that's what the media claims. The August issue of Relix sports a vintage pic of Jerry for its cover story, as well as the dubious claim "Rock's Original Hipster." Before that, Arthur and The Fader ran similar spreads, both of which contain testimonials from modern underground heavies coming out of the vault, so to speak. Even Pitchfork, indie's ruling tastemaker, has jumped into the ring, with writer Mark Richardson putting together a dancing-bear primer for all those Arcade Fire fans apparently clamoring to hear the definitive versions of "Scarlet Begonias" and "New Potato Caboose."

These articles zero in on one of indie's more recent subgenres - that odd little thing called freak-folk. This, of course, is a total head-scratcher. Artists like Animal Collective, Akron/Family, Devendra Banhart and Vetiver sound far more like the Beach Boys and acid-fairy-turned-glam-rocker Marc Bolan than they do rock's longest, strangest trip.

Absent from all these discussions is the all-acoustic quartet Chatham County Line. Although the band plays Americana, not freak-folk, no other group of the past five years has forged a more distinct fusion of West Coast country-rock and the kind of hippie bluegrass the Dead and Garcia's myriad side projects explored on their definitive albums: American Beauty, Workingman's Dead, Europe '72, Garcia and Old & in the Way.

"I really didn't discover the bluegrass style of music until college," explains guitar player and lead vocalist Dave Wilson, phoning from his home in Raleigh, North Carolina. "I listened to the Dead and figured out that Jerry Garcia played banjo." The group's just returned from a tour of the U.K. in support of its latest full-length, the Yep Roc-released IV. "We feel like we are ambassadors for that kind of music," he adds. "We figure that with our younger audience, maybe we can let them know about it."

Why these four Dead-inspired ambassadors were passed over has to do with prejudices seeded deep within the indie milieu, which nowadays has more to do with style than whether or not a band is actually signed to an independent label (Chatham County Line is). Like its forefathers, punk and hardcore, indie-rock believes do-it-yourself amateurism is the one true path to artistic expression. This automatically relegates Chatham County Line to the scene's margins. Sure, the band cites Wilco as a key influence, but the members most resemble your prototypical bluegrass outfit in that they're professional musicians - all strings, no drums - skilled at tight ensemble playing. "We take some of the great building blocks of what bluegrass was, scoot them over and try to make our own building from them," he says.

Yet too much can be made of the chops. With obvious help from longtime producer Chris Stamey, co-founder of jangle-pop pioneers the dB's, Wilson and company have gradually evolved into composers capable of some sharp hooks. On its best songs, ethereal ballads like "Chip of a Star," "Speed of the Whippoorwill" and "One More Minute," Chatham County Line tempers its musicianship with gorgeous, simple melodies, as well as a love for those supple silences lurking in between the notes. It's the same balancing act that made the Dead so unique in the early '70s. Here were dudes who really knew how to jam, yet they kept their noodling in check to write utterly pristine pastoral hymns like "Ripple" and "Brokedown Palace."

More important than musicianship (and far more contentious) is the question of soul. And this is where Chatham County Line most echoes the Dead, a band Etta James once called America's "baddest" blues band (at least, that's the wacky legend). Freak-folkies might dress like the hippies of yore, but their peppy campfire sing-alongs are far removed from what makes American music so unique: the volatile intersection of black and white that has created everything from bluegrass to rockabilly to acid rock. Sure, a beard like Devendra Banhart might bop and chirp, but he never ever grooves, much less swings. That's not the case with C.C.L., especially in the live setting. Adding elements of gospel, Southern soul and classic honky-tonk, the group pounds the floor and sways in front of a single microphone, crooning get-down boogie, with vintage titles like "Let It Rock" and "Whipping Boy."

Of course, as native Carolinians, Chatham County Line can lay direct claim to a tradition that the Dead could tap only from the other side of the country.

Translation: There's nobody more soulful than a Southerner. "There's a lot of emotion that goes with this music," says Wilson, laughing at the notion, yet slyly giving it credence. "No matter what kind of music I play, I just feel it from the inside out. You've just got to be completely glued to what you're doing."

Pigpen would be so proud.

- Cleveland Scene


"The Singles File"

Chatham County Line: "Birmingham Jail"

The Raleigh-based bluegrass upstarts stock this tale of the 1963 Birmingham bombing with such gut-wrenching imagery, it's like they are trying to be depressing. You won't hear a more moving song all year.
- The Washington Post


"Chatham County Line"

A cursory glance at the title of Chatham County Line’s fourth album might make you wonder if the quartet’s imaginative muse has deserted them.  Thankfully, you’d be wrong.  Instead, IV happens to be a quiet indie revolution in the field of edgy yet traditional bluegrass, which bands like Crooked Still have recently been tilling.  The themes which pervaded Chatham County Line’s earlier records—poverty, social justice, romantic heartache and that old country blues staple, trains—are again present, only this time they’ve woven some subtle grassed-up pop and a little more kick-ass rock than recently into the fabric of their literate story-songs. 

“There has always been a progression” in the band’s music, or so Chris Stamey claims. And he should know.  Because it was Stamey who landed them their contract with Yep Roc records soon after seeing the quartet perform at a send-off tour party for country singer Tift Merritt in 2003.  Apart from a brief hiatus which found him replaced by Brian Paulson (Beck, Wilco) on the group’s most traditional and least varied album, 2006’s Speed of the Whippoorwill, Stamey (a member of jangle-pop quartet the dB’s), has since served as Chatham County Line’s regular producer.

But the influences of your formative years are always going to bleed through eventually.  A roots-rocker at heart, Chatham County Line’s singer and main songwriter Dave Wilson came to bluegrass late—“through the Jerry Garcia connection”, as he himself confesses—after stints in Grateful-Dead-inspired garage bands and in mid-’90s local Raleigh, North Carolina, southern rockers Stillhouse.  It wasn’t until the end of the decade that he got together with dexterous pickers Chandler Holt (banjo), John Teer (mandolin/fiddle), and Greg Readling (upright bass/steel guitar) and the blue light just came shinin’ through.  Although Wilson and Readling did continue, around this time, to play simultaneously in Merritt’s country rock band the Carbines (two of whom, Zeke Hutchins and Jay Brown, knocked around ideas for this album with Wilson during jam sessions held in the songwriter’s basement) and Chatham County Line. 

So, when Wilson would like to see the listener keep the beat as fifth member and drummer, “whether it be stomping your foot or tapping on the steering wheel”, his sentiment is neither all that surprising nor entirely advisable.  Because listening to the choice acoustic rockers, here, like the addictive hook-laden opener “Chip of a Star”, the romping, sugar-shack hoedown “Let It Rock”, or the grassy folk-rock of “I Got Worry” whilst positioned behind the wheel of any form of transport is a lawsuit waiting to happen. 

The strongest tunes, however, still remain Chatham County Line’s trademark epic story-songs in the mould of the melancholy title-track off the band’s second album,Route 23. Just listen to Wilson’s yearning nasal country blues drawl eloquently relating the 1963 civil rights struggle for desegregation in schools on the misleadingly buoyant “Birmingham Jail”, while the high lonesome whine of steel guitar and gently plucked banjo form a backdrop for a passionate tale of cat houses, poverty, and alcholism on “Sweet Eviction”, with the pleading line “Don’t be afraid to change your ways” resonating from the bottom of an almost empty glass.  Let’s hope they don’t change theirs too much.
- popmatters.com


"Chatham County Line goes beyond bluegrass roots"

CHATHAM COUNTY LINE. "IV." Yep Roc Records

Bluegrass musicians play hard. They pluck their mandolins, finger their banjos and saw on the necks of their fiddles with taut and dexterous digits.

They have no choice in the matter, since their genre disfavors drummers, making the melody men provide their own percussion.

Chatham County Line conforms to this bluegrass tenet. The group boasts no stick man. With playing this muscular, who needs one?

But that's hardly the whole story. Again, on its fourth album, which hits stores today, CCL contrasts forceful playing with some of the softest vocals and prettiest tunes on the scene today. It's a lovely album, blurring the line between bluegrass instrumentation and alt-country songwriting. Any fan of acts like the Jayhawks, Wilco and Son Volt will adore the mix.

In a sense, this has always been true. CCL never wanted to be an orthodox bluegrass band, though they've got the chops. Original songwriting has always been as important to them, ever since they began in arty Asheville, N.C., around 2000.

They've put out their albums in fairly quick succession - nearly one a year. The latest brings them together with someone who has produced them before, former dB Chris Stamey. A jangle-pop touchstone, Stamey seems to have encouraged the band's most melodic side.

Only two bluegrass instrumentals turn up: the bracing "Clear Blue Sky" and the more prim "Paige." Otherwise, sweetness rules, both in the fluidity of the tunes and in the voice of singer Dave Wilson, whose tones can recall the Jayhawks' Gary Louris.

Lyrically, CCL often writes about being torn between two poles: lovers, in "The Carolinian," or lifestyles, in "Country Boy/City Boy." They go for something more strident in "Birmingham Jail," which addresses white supremacy in the '60s, and "Whipping Boy," in which one lover carps about being bullied by the other.

Otherwise, there's a great gentility to "IV," not to mention some of the best original bluegrass writing this side of Alison Krauss and Union Station. - NY Daily News


Discography

Wildwood - Yep Roc Records
IV - Yep Roc Records
Speed of the Whippoorwill - Yep Roc Records
Route 23 - Yep Roc Records
Chatham County Line - Yep Roc/Bonfire Records

Photos

Bio

Ten years in, the four gentlemen that form Chatham County Line have a lot to reflect on. Sold out shows in the US and overseas, appearances on national Radio TV, four solid selling records, and four really dirty suits. "We want to be the band that puts on the most professional show in the business of what we do" reflects singer/guitarist/writer Dave Wilson. "I get tired of going to a show and the band stands around on stage doing nothing for 40% of the gig, if you're there for us, we are gonna prove we are there for you." It is that sincerity of showmanship and professionalism that has led to countless miles on the road for CCL. "We've wore out two vans by now and I've actually worn out a few ties as well, you ever hear of someone wearing out a tie?" asks John Teer, mandolin, fiddle and high tenor singer for the band. It is this sweat equity that has fans driving hundreds of miles to catch Chatham County Line at work on the road. "We've had fans travel from another country to catch a show," reflects banjoist Chandler Holt, continuing, "That's when you know you're doing something right." Releasing "IV" to critical acclaim in 2008, CCL was invited to be on Later. . . with Jools Holland on BBC 2 in the UK alongside such acts as The Raconteurs, Nick Cave, and Bon Iver. "Now that was a party," muses standup bassist Greg Readling, adding "When you've got those guys coming up and introducing themselves to you, all the miles just melt away."

The band is now touring in support of their fifth studio recording "Wildwood" which was released July 13th 2010 on Yep Roc records. On the road they can be seen on the stages of festivals such as Merlefest, Grey Fox, Rockygrass, The Winnipeg Folk Fest, Pickathon, Hardly Strictly Bluegrass, Shakori Hills, Bristol Rhythm and Roots, Pickin' in the Pines, 3 Sisters, Bergenfest (NO), Lowlands (NL), Take Root (NL), & Kilkenny Rhythm and Roots (IE). TV & Radio appearances include Later. . . with Jools Holland (BBC 2), God Morgen Norge (NO), Bob Harris Country (BBC 2), McLean's Country (BBC IE), Shouting Boots Radio 6 (NL), NRK Lydverket (NO), World Cafe Live (WXPN), The State of Things (WUNC), and numerous other regional, local, and interweb broadcasts.