Chatham County Line - Ripe for the pickin'
"I think all the best records capture a mood rather than any sort of perfection. You know, none of us are virtuosos. You could replace all of us with Nashville cats. But this is us." Dave Wilson Downtown Raleigh's Lincoln Theatre is packed, and Chatham County Line is ready to go. But their gear isn't cooperating. As the band strums out the first notes of the night, a loud hum builds in the monitors and erupts into the sort of feedback you'd expect to hear at a loud rock show. Funny thing, though -- this is supposed to be bluegrass music. "Whoa!" says guitarist Dave Wilson, recoiling from the noise. "We've been visited by the ghosts of shows past yet again!" Wilson and his bandmates retreat, and some technical fiddling ensues. Finally the soundman issues the all-clear. "Have we killed that beast?" Wilson asks. "OK, again!" Off they go, gathered around a single microphone placed in front of a large North Carolina flag. Frontman Wilson is stage-left strumming his acoustic guitar opposite John Teer, who chips in with mandolin fills. Chandler Holt stands behind Teer, chugging along on banjo, while Greg Readling stays in back keeping steady time on a standup bass. The instrumentation is traditional, and so are Wilson and Teer's vocal harmonies -- Wilson down low, Teer up high, on a melancholy ode to vagabonding called "Nowhere To Sleep": I have nowhere to sleep tonight Not a place to lay my head If I don't get near some kindling, dear Somebody's gonna find me dead Nothing there to offend any bluegrass purists in the house. All the same, there's a reason Wilson describes Chatham County Line as more of a rock band without a drummer than an old-school bluegrass group. Wilson is ultimately a rocker at heart, and not just when he leads his alter-ego rock band Stillhouse (which also includes Readling). Pretty much everything Wilson does rocks, including bluegrass. It should come as no surprise that Wilson came to bluegrass via Steve Earle. Or that, before tonight's show, Wilson and his bandmates were warming up backstage with Guns N' Roses' "Patience". As the band finishes its opening number, Wilson tells the crowd, "Well, that was the first song on our last record. Now here's the second song on our new one." Were Johnny Cash still alive, he'd probably like to get his voice around "Rock Pile", track two on Chatham County Line's Song Of The Whippoorwill (released May 30 on Yep Roc Records). As source material goes, you can do a lot worse than the storyline of "Folsom Prison Blues". The words tumble out at a pace closer to "Johnny B. Goode" than anything in the bluegrass canon: I was doing pretty good once I got my feet Had a dollar in my pocket for something sweet If I hadn't shot that clerk I'd be doing fine But he went for his gun and I had mine The crowd whoops and hollers on the solos, and the song turns into dueling banjo, guitar and mandolin on the outro. That leads into a getaway instrumental that's even faster, followed by a few more from the band's past -- "Tennessee Valley Authority" and "Bacon In The Skillet" from their self-titled 2003 debut, and "Arms Of The Law" from last year's Route 23. (Yes, incarceration is one of Wilson's favorite subjects.) "Thank you for coming out and helping us celebrate the birth of our brand new bouncing baby album," Wilson says. "I hope none of y'all wind up tonight in the long arms of the law." Material from the new album is the star of the show, especially "Lonesome In Caroline", a Piedmont blues-style travelogue of North Carolina landmarks from Beaufort on the coast to Asheville up in the mountains. After the encore, the band says good night. But instead of leaving the stage, they just stand there staring down the crowd as it continues to cheer. Finally, Wilson and Teer raise fists and whoop as they walk off. Bruce Springsteen couldn't have done it any better. Two nights later, Chatham County Line's four members are gathered at a downtown Raleigh diner to talk about their new album. They take pretty much the same ensemble approach to interviews that they do to playing shows. Wilson and Teer do most of the talking, while Readling and Holt interject the occasional detail or droll quip. Teer is the most outgoing Lineman, which fits his go-getter personality. Before Chatham County Line became a full-time proposition, he would take his fiddle to local nightspots with the express intention of sitting in at every show he went to (he was successful more often than not). Holt seems comfortable in his role as the band's George Harrison figure; Speed Of The Whippoorwill has his first lead vocal, on "Coming Home". Readling stays quiet most of the time, but that only gives his punchlines more heft. When Wilson says the poignant ballad "They Were Just Children" was "written especially for this album," Readling needles him with perfect comic timing: "Yeah, written especially for Gillian Welch to cover." As for Wilson, he has a manner that is simultaneously laid-back and sardonic. Asked to sign the new album's CD booklet, he writes, "You'd better make me famous!" Then he crosses out "me" and changes it to "us." It's too bad that he won't be taking Stillhouse out as Chatham County Line's opening act to give audiences a sample of his more overtly rocking side. "We've done that in the past, but I just can't do it anymore," Wilson says. "It's too schizophrenic, I can't keep the two separate enough. Plus it's too loud. If Stillhouse goes first, it blows my ears out and then I can't hear John's beautiful harmonies. "The ideal thing would be if Chatham County Line got huge here while Stillhouse hit it big overseas. Then I'd get on a plane as a flatpicker, and get off as a maniac with an accent!" Chatham County Line is in fact doing pretty well on the home front. The group tours steadily on the festival circuit and picked up some widespread exposure when the Route 23 title track turned up on the National Public Radio show "Car Talk" last year. But Wilson's master plan breaks down a bit when it comes to Europe, because Chatham County Line's fan base is growing there, too. The band has done a couple of European tours, finding appreciative audiences across the continent -- especially in Norway. "They clap in unison if they like something," Readling says of Norwegian crowds. "And they're like a metronome," Holt adds. "Just on it." One by-product of Chatham County Line's Norwegian popularity is the recorded version of "Lonesome In Caroline". The band tried without success to nail the song in the studio, finally recording it onstage in Drammen, Norway, during a tour with singer Jonas Fjeld. "We must've tried that one at least ten times in the studio," Teer says. "That one was so hard to get that we finally gave up on getting a studio version and cannibalized a live recording from Norway. Playing over there had been such a great experience that we wanted to take something from it." The other thirteen songs on Speed Of The Whippoorwill were recorded at Mitch Easter's Fidelitorium in Kernersville, North Carolina, with producer Brian Paulson. This was the first time the group didn't work with meticulous mastermind Chris Stamey, who produced both Route 23 and the self-titled debut. Speed Of The Whippoorwill is also the band's first since Wilson and Readling left their primary gig playing with Tift Merritt in 2004. "Yeah, this was the first record where this band was our priority rather than this side thing for everyone," Wilson says. "It's real different when something is your main focus versus being a hobby. "But more than that, this was also the first record we made where we felt like the band was its own thing rather than this bluegrass band looking to its heroes. This time, it's like we were more aware of this whole other thing we can draw from." Part of that involved working with Paulson, whose credits include Joe Henry, Uncle Tupelo, Wilco and Son Volt -- alternative-country landmarks all. But in recent years, Paulson has done a lot more rock than roots music. Chatham County Line caught Paulson right after he had worked on Home Is Loud, Merritt's 2005 live album, when he was thinking he'd like to do some more rootsy music along those lines. Holt recalls Paulson saying in their first conversation that he would "love to do a band whose influences are not what was hot last fall." Still, it took band and producer some time to adjust to each other in the studio. In contrast to Stamey's hands-on approach, Paulson tends to stay out of the way and let the moment happen. So the first day in the studio was difficult, yielding nothing the band was happy with (a problem in that they only had four days to record). But they nailed "Rock Pile" early in the second day, and the rest of the album quickly followed. "Chris and Brian are both great, but they're almost opposite in the way they work," Wilson says. "Chris is, 'OK, you stand here, you here, you there, here we go.' Brian was hung over the first day and just kind of let us do our thing, and it did take us a while to get rolling. But we did, finally. He wasn't giving us any advice about extra choruses or anything, he was more like just letting things happen. Capturing a mood versus not making mistakes. "We want our records to be like little parties that we capture, a good time with no stress. I love the idea of getting it when it's still fresh. Like The Band, making their second record. They'd work up a song one day, then record it first thing the next day. Then they'd move on to the next, spend the rest of the day working it up, record it the day after that. "I think all the best records capture a mood rather than any sort of perfection," he concludes. "You know, none of us are virtuosos. You could replace all of us with Nashville cats. But this is us. Just us. Justice." One thing you won't find on Speed Of The Whippoorwill is a cover of anyone else's song, either rock or bluegrass. Chatham County Line doesn't do any covers onstage either, although they used to. But they swore off covers once and for all after they started playing the Faces' "Ooh La La" -- right before it turned up in a bunch of television commercials. While Wilson allows that it would be fun to throw in the occasional bluegrass version of a rock song, he has his reasons for thinking that's a trap to avoid. "We don't do rock covers because Hayseed Dixie has ruined my life," Wilson says. "You know, Pickin' On James Taylor, Pickin' On Eagles, Pickin' On everything -- it just cheapens the genre if you can slap a banjo and some corny harmonies onto something and call it bluegrass. "There are some cool songs I'd love to cover, but I'm afraid it would just turn into a parody. We used to do that Motown song, 'Pain In My Heart', and these drunk guys would get in my face: 'Man, that was beautiful! You need to do a whole album of just Motown songs, dude!' Uh, no." This no-covers philosophy even extends into areas where covers are most expected. Chatham County Line was commissioned to record a Christmas song for a project being issued this fall under the auspices of Southern Comfort. But instead of knocking off "White Christmas" or some other chestnut, Wilson wrote an original called "Oh Santa". "Yeah, we'll save all the covers for the live album," says Teer. "For the last year and a half, we made the decision to do just originals, even leaving out traditional bluegrass covers. Just to separate ourselves. People call out requests for 'Rocky Top'..." "Yeah," Wilson interjects, "the 'Free Bird' of bluegrass." "...and we just have to tell them, 'Sorry, we don't do anything but our own songs now," Teer continues. "Even with traditional songs, you see bands that wind up having to do those whether they want to or not. So you get stuck. We're doing originals thinking that, in the long run, it will convey more." Wilson does allow that "it would be great to do a Pickin' On album with a modicum of style. Do Neil Young or somebody like that. But that doesn't seem to be the way they're done. Besides, you go see some real star act like U2, and they're playing their own shit. Not that I'm saying we're U2 or anything. But we're us, this is what we do, and it's not silly versions of oldies or new songs. "Bottom line, we don't want to play a show where people are laughing at you on every song. Man, that must get old." ND contributing editor David Menconi would like to certify that no bluegrass was harmed in the writing and reporting of this story.