Album Review: Chatham County Line – Chatham County Line

Juli Thanki | January 9th, 2009

Chatham County LineAfter several years out of print, Chatham County Line’s 2003 self-titled debut is finally being reissued, now on Yep Roc Records. While the Raleigh, North Carolina quartet has recently become a Newgrass/Alt-Country mover and shaker with its outstanding 2008 release IV, the band’s first record finds the group at its most traditional.

Chatham County Line sets the stage for a rollicking trip through bluegrass-country straightaway, with a sprightly mandolin and fiddle kickoff on opening track “Closing Town,” a song whose subject matter—unemployment, poverty, and desperation—belies its peppy arrangement. The overly nasal three-part harmony is a bit grating at first, and in comparison to the other tracks on the album, “Closing Town” is rather boring. Fortunately, Chatham County Line quickly picks up speed and becomes an enjoyable listen not only for bluegrassers, but fans of acoustic roots music in general, especially as fiddler/mandolinist John Teer leads the band on the remarkable instrumental “Butterwheel,” a breakneck piece that showcases the group’s skillful picking, notably that of banjoist Chandler Holt.

Elsewhere, frontman and guitarist Dave Wilson serves as the band’s primary songwriter, his boyish charm on display in several songs including the playful, infectious banjo-driven “Sightseeing,” a tune about ogling pretty girls and the justification of said ogling to his better half: “And maybe, at the barroom, his eyes they wander ’round/That don’t mean he ain’t satisfied with the vision he has found/By looking, he ain’t hurting the one he truly loves/There’s a whole world of difference between a look and a touch.

At a time in which many young musicians take themselves far too seriously (I’m looking at you, Chris Thile), the sense of humor and wry self-awareness on Chatham County Line is a welcome respite.

Punctuating these moments of wit and levity is the general theme of nostalgia that weighs heavy on Wilson’s songs. “WSM (650)” finds him reminiscing about a destitute childhood spent listening to the radio and dreaming of country music stardom in the promised land of Nashville–a common topic for bluegrass songs, yes, but here Wilson’s earnestness rings truer than most.

Though they were strictly a bluegrass band at this point in their career, Chatham County Line reflects the band’s wide and varied musical influences. They may namedrop Merle Haggard and sing a rather metafictional (if such a word can be applied to songwriting) “Song for John Hartford,” but echoes of Jimmie Rodgers, Bill Monroe, and even an occasional burst of Allman Brothers resonate through the album. The band also reveals their Dylan leanings with a cover of “I Shall Be Released,” a song so well-written that it would be a masterpiece no matter who sings it. Here, however, the achingly gorgeous harmonies (which include guest vocals from fellow North Carolinian and alt-country darling Tift Merritt) and Wilson’s world-weary tenor make this version of the song just as good, if not better, than the original.

Though Chatham County Line’s more recent progressive stylings are certainly outstanding records in their own right, the band’s take on traditional bluegrass is nothing to overlook, and on this album, the foundation of a solid bluegrass band–progressive or otherwise–has been laid. Of course, with talent like theirs, the boys from CCL can play damn near anything they want. I’ll keep on listening.

4 Stars

  1. Find Niches Online
    January 9, 2009 at 8:49 pm

    Excellent content here and a nice writing style too – keep up the great work!

  2. Rick
    January 9, 2009 at 9:15 pm

    Can we pretend the “Listen To The Music” CD from 3 Fox Drive (i.e. the Fox Sisters) has been reissued so it gets a nice review here? I think they are one of the most under-rated new-grass bands in the bluegrass realm and they always blow me away when they perform on the Opry. Straight forward bluegrass tends to bore me quickly, but I never have that problem with 3 Fox Drive. We now return from the Twilight Zone to the Chatham County Line….

  3. Baron Lane
    January 9, 2009 at 10:25 pm

    Juli, If I weren’t already hitched I’d totally stalk you. Great piece gal…

  4. Leeann Ward
    January 10, 2009 at 9:27 am

    Great review, though I like Chris Thile. He does take himself too seriously, I’ll have to admit, of course.
    I like # 3 Fox Drive, but I really don’t think they’re super outstanding compared to other bluegrass artists.

  5. Sam G.
    January 10, 2009 at 12:00 pm

    As a fan of the last three CCL CDs, I was curious as to how the first one fit in with the rest of their catalog. It sounds as good as their later work, so it goes onto my wish list immediately. Thanks, Juli!

  6. Juli
    January 10, 2009 at 5:36 pm

    Sam, I liked it more than “Whippoorwill,” but less than “Route 23″ and “IV.” Always good to see another CCL fan out there!

    Leeann, I like Chris Thile a whole lot. I think Chris Thile also likes Chris Thile a whole lot. But I guess when you’re one of the best mandolin players alive, some sense of self-importance is inherent.

    And Baron, if you weren’t hitched, I’d stalk you too. Unless you turn out to be a Cowboys fan.

  7. Leeann Ward
    January 10, 2009 at 7:19 pm

    Ha! I agree that Chris Thile likes Chris Thile a lot too! There’s no lack of confidence there for sure.

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