Chatham County Line – Ripe for the pickin’
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.”