Chatham County Line‘s Wildwood opens with the title track in a fluid, decisive, all-cards-on-the-table motion. It’s all banjo rhythms, fiddle accents, the chuck of bass and clear, tight harmonies. It’s a best-foot-forward launch for a band who, more than a decade into its career, has certainly smoothed over the rough edges. But playing crack bluegrass isn’t CCL’s only trick. The bridge of “Wildwood” introduces a piano line that changes the texture of the song and points the album into uncharted territory.
The piano is played by Greg Readling who also mans the bass. Upright bass has always played an important role in bluegrass, but CCL repurposes its instruments with an ear for classical composition. This approach to songwriting is probably most apparent on the bittersweet track “Alone in New York” which is more Amos Lee or The Speedbumps than Bill Monroe and the Blue Grass Boys. Careful lyrics (“As the morning comes, one night’s work so quickly undone”) are paired with velvety keys which build to a burbling banjo part and then the sweep of viola.
John Teer plays most of the bands’ strings — mandolin, fiddle and viola — and while he can certainly tear it up with a riff as fast as a snake bite, more often than not on this album, he’s not playing the showy solos associated with bluegrass fiddlers, but the composed, textural parts of a string quartet member (as filtered through the lense of roots music).
The same can be said for Chandler Holt’s banjo. This is an instrument that is usually out front and leading the sonic charge. But Holt’s playing recalls both the melancholy strangeness of Abigail Washburn and the background rhythmic layering found in Celtic music. Holts hits his stride in the spacious, ambling “Crop Comes In,” which is equal parts pedal steel (Readling), harmonica (Wilson) and water-over-rocks banjo — all of these lonesome/lovely sounds combining to craft a resonant, bewitching portrait of longing.
Strange for a bluegrass band to capture an exquisite ache or a twilit hush so well, but CCL’s gentle folk-blues lullaby “Porcelain Doll” is the pinnacle of that sound. It’s built on a low drone — likely bowed bass — gives the songs its warm fullness as well as creating a canvas on which Wilson can paint with his lyrics and Teer can add accents of mandolin. The last 30 seconds of the song opens into a three-or-four-part sweep of strings that is sure to gut all but the most hard-hearted of listeners.
These departures from traditional bluegrass aesthetics are, perhaps, what make Wildwood such a standout, but the band isn’t trying to rewrite the genre. Tracks like “Heart Attack” and “End of the Line” stick closer to protocol with a focus on picking and tight vocal harmonies; banjo-led “Ghost of Woody Guthrie” pays homage to folk roots as does “Ringing in My Ear,” though that track is studying more at the knee of folk rockers (Paul Simon) that train hoppers.