Electric wonderland

Bluegrass cheer: The band’s holiday show (which debuted in 2003) has become a vital part of its identity. Photo by Daniel Coston

In December 2009 Chatham County Line was set to hit Asheville on the first-ever tour of their annual holiday show. The morning before the gig, banjo player Chandler Holt received a call from Jeff Whitworth, co-owner of the Grey Eagle. A huge snowstorm had just dumped a foot of snow on the city, and Whitworth inquired doubtfully as to the status of the band's trek.

“[He] was like, 'Man, are you guys coming?'” Holt recalls. “I was like, 'Hell yeah, I'm going to be there!' He was like, 'People are snowed in, man.' I was like, 'Well, whatever.' He was like, 'As many people are getting snowed in, there are people stuck inside getting cabin fever. There's not going to be as many people.' We were like, 'As long as we can get the van down the street, we will freaking be there.' And it was a blast, man. People were like, 'Don't stop playing! It's cold at our house!' They didn't have any heat or electricity. That to me stuck out as one of the best things ever. Just that slight amount of adversity, everyone rallied, and it payed off and turned into something really great.”

Raleigh's Chatham County Line are as polished and professional a modern bluegrass outfit as you're likely to come across:  a tight, chugging foursome of bass, mandolin, guitar and banjo that's filled out with gorgeous pedal steel and additional percussion on record.
      They're also road warriors in the truest sense of the term. Started in 1999, they now play 100 to 120 shows a year, trekking often across the U.S. and Europe. Life on the road has brought them closer, making them a better ensemble.

With their five-date holiday tour, a tradition that began in 2003, the band hopes to use exaggerated adversity to accomplish a different end. These five N.C. concerts will feature the band's traditional acoustic set, where all four stand un-amplified around one area mic. But they will also play an electric set where the band is joined by three special guests — friends and collaborators who have been integral in the band's history.

Drummer Zeke Hutchins, bassist Jay Brown and guitarist Johnny Irion played with Chatham County Line's Dave Wilson (guitar), Greg Readling (bass) and John Teer (mandolin) in the folk-rock outfit Stillhouse and the backing band for acclaimed folk singer Tift Merritt during her stint in Raleigh in the early aughts. Now, the once close friends are spread out and busy. Hutchins and Merritt, his wife, live in New York. Brown lives down the street from Wilson, but the two rarely see each other thanks to CCL's busy touring schedule. The band hopes that a weeklong trial by fire each December will help maintain the close bonds in their extended musical family.

“We love it, man,” Wilson says. “We're actually going back to our roots. It's not like we're changing anything. We're just kind of doing what we always did on a Saturday night.”

More than just an opportunity to reunite with old friends during the most celebratory time of the year, the show lets CCL directly feed their rock impulses. Pedal steel and piano have been part of their recorded output for years, and they added drums to last year's Wildwood. These moves sit outside the hardline traditionalism favored by many in the bluegrass world. Plugging in and adding additional players gives Reading the opportunity to play live the keys and steel he adds in the studio. Wilson notes that these moves are far from studio posturing, emphasizing that when the band is just hanging out, the rock instruments most always come out first.

“We're just actually using the holidays as an excuse to do this,” Wilson says. “We'd love to be able to put on the acoustic show and then put on a rock show in the same night, but it's just not really feasible to travel around with all that crap all year long. We love doing the acoustic set as well, but we love to rock out.”

The holiday show has become a vital part of Chatham County Line’s identity. It began in 2003, the year that the band debuted its first record, and a performance from last year's tour at the Variety Playhouse in Atlanta was recorded for a double LP and DVD package (to be released in March.) It's become one of the band's most treasured occasions, one they in no way plan to abandon.

“If I had like 50 nasty emails in my inbox from people who were like, 'I absolutely hate that you're doing this,' I might think about it for a second,” Holt laughs. “But it still wouldn't change anything.”

— Jordan Lawrence is assistant editor at Charlotte-based Shuffle Magazine and a contributing writer at The Independent.

who: Chatham County Line Electric Holiday Tour, with Johnny Irion
where: The Grey Eagle
when: Saturday, Dec. 17 (9 p.m. $12. thegreyeagle.com)

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