Like the trains that so often show up in their songs, Chatham County Line has moved relentlessly forward in its two-decade history as a band. The North Carolina-based group takes curves without fear and chugs along the straightaways with confidence and an audible eagerness to see what’s ahead.
Their latest album, Strange Fascination, is right on track, but there are a few twists. It’s the last album they recorded with banjo player Chandler Holt, who left the band last August to focus on family and his own music career. And while several past tracks have featured drums, all of Strange Fascination’s nine songs are punctuated by percussion.
“Bluegrass” is a genre classification that’s never fully fit Chatham County Line. While they certainly pull from that tradition and have the instrumental chops, jam sensibilities, and songbook to walk in that world, they also embed country and rock influences to create a sound that’s unmistakably their own, and that creates unity across all of their nine studio albums, even as they experiment with new elements and redraw their own boundaries.
“Leave This World” spends its first minute or so as a hushed hymn, just organ and harmonized vocals, echoing as if from within a church. But then guitar, mandolin, and drumbeat kick in, shifting the song into the modern era and becoming a spirited celebration of life.
Several of the album’s songs are inspired by American history, including “The Eagle and The Boy,” which recounts a wild-but-true 1901 story of a mother who reacted to her baby being snatched by an eagle by climbing to the bird’s mountaintop nest and taking that baby right back; “Queen Anne’s Gold,” the tale of a search for pirate’s treasure; and “Free Again,” which celebrates the land of the free not with schlocky slogans but with lyrics like this:
This is for the millions who died
No chance to be free
This is for the blood of the fallen
Fought so hard for liberty.
The album’s title track is also its highlight, a lovely, dreamy song of wanting made even more otherworldly by vocals from Sharon Van Etten entwined with those of Chatham County Line lead singer, guitarist, and songwriter Dave Wilson.
And a train song once again makes for a high point here, too. “Station to Station” is a classic ramblin’ man song that admits there’s a boy behind those rambles, a failure to grow up that may be problematic but also sounds pretty pleasurable.
It was a very busy 2019 for Chatham County Line: They put out an album of cover songs, made and toured with Winter Songs with Judy Collins and Jonas Fjeld, and accompanied comedians Steve Martin and Martin Short on their Now You See Them, Soon You Won’t tour. So 2020 probably feels to Wilson, fiddle player and mandolinist John Teer, and bassist and pianist Greg Readling like someone slammed on the brakes, what with the pause in touring amid coronavirus precautions. But in reaction to that, the band released Strange Fascination three weeks ahead of their intended May date, a step contrary to the delayed releases of so many other bands. They knew we needed this music now, and they unwittingly gave us what could perhaps be a theme song for these times in closing track “Nothing”:
A cold beer ain’t worth a damn lest it’s sweating in your hand
So hand me down another friend let’s make a plan
The day may come we’ll get back to hustling
But till that day let’s make our hay making bets on nothing.