Chatham County Line
Chatham County Line
Country music group
As the original bluegrass masters die off, their mantle is been taken up by such neo-hillbilly outfits as Chatham County Line. Led by chief songwriter Dave Wilson, the Raleigh, North Carolina-based combo has relished creating atmospheric, old-timey music with a contemporary edge. Indeed, the quartet not only embraces the pure sounds of such rustic pioneers as Bill Monroe, Flatt & Scruggs, and Ralph Stanley, it incorporates splashes of baby boom-era folk rock via lush Byrds-inspired harmony, as well as the tough urban lyricism of alt. rock. Their multi-generational versatility has allowed them to recast songs from other genres as crowd-pleasing barn dance numbers, while crafting original material that speaks to a younger, well-educated audience.
Despite the fact that he sounds completely authentic singing country and bluegrass, Dave Wilson's early life boasted classic rock influences with few roots music frills. "I just played in garage bands during junior high and in high school," he said in an interview for Country Standard Time. "I played the usual gamut of tunes from the Grateful Dead to Steppenwolf." He added, "Generally speaking, I didn't come from a very musical family in that we didn't listen to much country, bluegrass, or things like that. There was more exposure to the radio, so that's what I grew up idolizing because I didn't know any better."
Always listening for new sounds, Wilson's musical horizons were broadened once he began attending North Carolina State University. "There were people around who helped get me into things that I didn't know existed. I had never heard of John Hartford before or Leo Kottke or J.J. Cale. They're just some of my favorite artists now."
College jam band situations resulted in the formation of Stillhouse, a loose contingent that mixed the Southern fried rock of The Band and the Byrds with Steve Earle-influenced storytelling. Hearing the connection between "the Gram Parsons vibe of music" and traditional country music opened a new line of creative thought for Wilson. Subsequently, he was ripe for the chance meetings with the pickers who eventually became Chatham County Line.
Featuring Wilson on guitar, banjoist Chandler Holt, bassist/pedal steel player Greg Readling, and mandolin/fiddle master John Teer, CCL honed their style while struggling through low-paying road gigs and meaningless day jobs hoping for a break. It came while Wilson and Readling were still part of a country act known as the Carbines, who often served as the backing band for highly touted country songstress Tift Merritt.
"We were going out on tour to support [Tift Merritt's] first record," explained Wilson. "So, she had CCL play a send-off party and we played out in front of this old general store. Well, [producer/singer-songwriter] Chris Stamey was out there and he had done the demos for her record. He just heard us and liked us, and I'm not sure if he was just doing it so he'd have something to do, but he called the guys at Yep Roc." Stamey, renowned for his eclectic work with the dbs, the Sneakers, and Peter Holsapple, not only got Chatham County Line the recording contract they craved, but produced them as well.
Released on Yep Roc's Bonfire imprint, CCL's first album combined historically researched gems such as "Tennessee Valley Authority" with foot-stomping hoe-down ditties like "Bacon in the Skillet." Further, both band and producer tried hard to duplicate the sound of original bluegrass by gathering around a single microphone and playing live off-the-floor. The result garnered strong reviews, but Wilson felt the band didn't really gel until they began touring. "The best thing that we've done is go out on the road. When we went to Colorado [in 2004], it was a great bonding experience—not only between the guys but between us and our instruments. You can't deny that repetition of playing every night. You reach a point where you don't think about what you're playing and you kind of transcend just being a guy with a guitar, a mandolin, or a banjo."
Wilson recalled the precise moment things began coming together for Chatham County Line. "We had hit the road and we had been camping and roughing it, and the pivotal point of us being a band and a team was getting up on that stage and winning [the Best New Bluegrass Band award] at the Rockygrass competition in Lyons, Colorado." Since then, the band's career has picked up momentum. Yep Roc released their second CD—on the main label this time—in early 2005. Cut at the Fidelitorium in Keanersville, North Carolina, Route 23 skillfully blended acoustic bluegrass and alt. rock-tinged lyrics. "I love the new record," Wilson said in the interview, "because it has become more about writing for our outfit and what I know each guy is going to bring to the song."
For the Record …
Members include Chandler Holt (born on June 7, 1977, in Richmond, VA), banjo, dobro, guitar; Greg Readling (born on January 10, 1969, in Charlotte, NC), bass, pedal steel guitar, back-up vocals; John Teer (born on April 3, 1977, in Shelby, NC), guitar, fiddle, mandolin, back-up vocals; Dave Wilson (born on August 13, 1974 in Charlotte, NC), lead vocals, guitar.
Group formed as side band project for the rock band Stillhouse in Raleigh, NC, 1996; Wilson and Readling were part of another sideband project, the Carbines, 1996-2004; discovered by artist/producer Chris Stamey and signed to Yep Roc subsidiary Bonfire, released first CD, 2003; first nationwide tour resulted in winning "Best New Bluegrass Band" at RockyGrass bluegrass competition, 2004; the group's second album, Route 23, released by Yep Roc, 2005.
Awards: RockyGrass bluegrass competition, Lyons, CO, Best New Bluegrass Band award, 2004.
Addresses: Record company—Yep Roc, P.O. Box 4821, Chapel Hill, NC 27515, website: http://www.yeproc.com. Booking—Mongrel Booking, Attn: Brad Madison, phone: (415) 485-5100, e-mail: [email protected]. Website—Chatham County Line Official Website: http://www.chathamcountyline.com.
As evidenced by such atmospheric instrumentals as "Gunfight in Durango" and the up-tempo "Sun Up," the band's various creative personalities are just beginning to show their considerable stylistic range. "Chandler wrote 'Sun Up' on banjo and just brought it to the table and we were all just kind of floored by it," recalled Wilson. "Our music seems to be moving away from the clog [dancing] style, but I love the fact that we can still do that."
Defiantly modern, the band is constantly creating and still absorbing influences. Wilson has listed Wilco and Gillian Welch as among his current favorites, and although his use of the internet for song lyric research makes some purists blanch, CCL's leader insists that his group has a strong regard for traditional bluegrass. "Definitely," affirmed Wilson. "I've just studied and listened and stood there in awe. But I feel that we aren't a band that will just copy or emulate the past completely. You can never deny yourself in any way, and the fact that I've grown up with the classic rock radio hits bouncing around in my brain is going to come out in some way. We're just trying to expound in ways that we see as respectful but not flagrant."
Chatham County Line is still fighting to make a living. Wilson supplements his income by selling collectibles on E-Bay, Readling crafts and sells traditional style furniture from his workshop, and Teer gives music lessons. But until they develop a strong national fan base, they plan to "just take this adventure as it comes." Indeed, Wilson seemed to savor the hand-to-mouth existence of a traveling roots musician, quipping philosophically, "This is what an English degree gets you, I guess. A guitar and a couple of albums."
Chatham County Line, Bonfire, 2003.
Route 23, Yep Roc, 2005.
Country Standard Time, March 2005.
"Chatham County Line," All Music Guide, http://www.all music.com (August 12, 2005).
Chatham County Line Official Website, http://www.chathamcountyline.com (May 7, 2005).
Additional information provided by Yep Roc publicity materials, 2005, and from an interview with Chatham County Line founder Dave Wilson on February 7, 2005, from which all quotations were taken.
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