Album Review: Chatham County Line – Chatham County Line
After 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.
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