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.