Chatham County Line has the instruments — banjo, guitar, mandolin and fiddle — and they do the gather-round-the-mic thing. In suits. But, despite the old-time influence and acoustic instrumentation, the Raleigh-based quartet isn't really a bluegrass band.
"Through the years we followed our hearts, and realized there are a lot of other bands, like the Steep Canyon Rangers, who are really killing it in a traditional sense. We don't have to fill that void," says singer/songwriter Dave Wilson. "Our job has been to service the song the best we can. We don't add flash for flash's sake, but try to support the lyrics and the story with the appropriate feel and emotion. We can follow our muse and I can write whatever kind of songs I want and bring them to the group."
CCL's muse, most recently, resulted in Wildwood, a lush album-full of Americana-by-way-of-classical compositions, underscored by textural, layered instrumentation (velvety keys, burbling banjo, sweeping viola) and richly storied lyrics. The record, with its pop savvy and earthy roots, edges toward timelessness, yet is firmly grounded in the present — which kind of makes sense, considering the band's beginning.
Banjo player Chandler Holt and mandolin/fiddler player John Teer started showing up at house parties where Wilson and bassist/pianist Greg Readling lived. "Greg and I were in kind of a rocking outfit [called Stillhouse] with him playing pedal steel and Wurlitzer and Hammond organ and stuff. I was playing a lot of electric guitar along with mandolin," says Wilson. "That was our genesis, and our songs directed us to this acoustic route."
(That particular trajectory has allowed for some unique developments, such as the band’s use of instruments. While bass/fiddle/banjo says “bluegrass,” there’s more than meets the eye: “Chandler's banjo playing has really evolved to being more of an electric-guitar part in a lot of ways,” says Wilson. “It's more melodic than the three-finger drive that Earl Scruggs made famous.”)
CCL’s start also included producer/musician Chris Stamey of '80s power-pop quartet The dB's, who heard Chatham County Line at a send-off for fellow triangle-area musician Tift Merritt. Wilson and Readling were in Merritt's band, at the time, and Merritt, in turn, invited them to open some of her shows. "Chris Stamey was there and really loved the songs and what we were doing and got us a record deal and pretty much put all of the pieces together to make the first record," says Wilson. "We're definitely beholden to him. The experience [led to] more of a pop sensibility, listening to the song and the way the song's constructed. Doubling choruses or whatever his input was. It always ended up being something that creates a better song in the long run."
Soon, Wilson and Readling left Merritt's band to pursue CCL full time (though Wilson recently sat in with Merritt on electric guitar — the two bands have remained close) but, veering from Stamey's pop inclinations (and, indeed, the band now produces its own albums), CCL opted for a bluegrass-style setup.
"There are myriad reasons why this works so well, one being the portability of the band," says Wilson. "We can really be a tight unit and travel the country economically with just our instruments and a microphone in a van, versus trying to rattle up a drummer and get a big Sprinter van or something. We really love what we do, and feel like it touches people in a way that loud electric music doesn't. To get back to the lyrics, our volume is such that you can hear every word."
He continues, "We love the silence between the notes. We find as we do shows more and more we do really raucous, energetic stuff but then we try to bring it back down to the real sparse sound where you can hear the person coughing in the audience. It's almost like silence is more powerful than all the noise in the world."
Excepting a handful of special Christmas shows, including CCL's upcoming Grey Eagle date. Expect that to get a little loud.
"It's great to get old friends together to plug in and play a little louder," says Wilson. The old friends in question include Merritt band members/Stillhouse alums drummer Zeke Hutchins (who contributed to Wildwood) and bassist Jay Brown.
Also, says Wilson, "There's a little more pedal steel than before so I think at the Christmas shows people will hear the songs more like they are on the record than the normal Chatham County Line acoustic show."
— Alli Marshall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
who: Chatham County Line
what: Christmas show, featuring Johnny Irion
where: The Grey Eagle
when: Saturday, Dec. 18 (9 p.m., $10 advance/$12 day of show. thegreyeagle.com)