Chatham County Line is a band with international appeal, and they’ve got the Norwegian platinum records to prove it. But the Raleigh bluegrass band has always been proudly local for philosophical reasons beyond that Triangle-centric name.
“One of the sweetest things about this band is it’s so simple,” says frontman/guitarist Dave Wilson. “I wouldn’t call it ‘easy,’ but our format and staging are very simple, without a lot of crew or some giant business to support. It’s like a store where I’d want to shop. I like going to Burke Brothers Hardware a lot more than Lowe’s, and that’s how I feel about this band: a locally owned and operated small-capital business providing a service people like and appreciate. It wouldn’t work if we tried to make it bigger than it could be.”
Despite the modest intentions, Chatham County Line has built itself up to be one of the Triangle’s more durably popular musical exports. Ostensibly an old-school bluegrass quartet, they’re more like a pop band with bluegrass instrumentation; all four members started out playing in rock bands, and their set lists generally include bluegrass versions of rock chestnuts from the likes of Traveling Wilburys or Rockpile.
Onstage and in conversation, they come across as pretty lighthearted. But their original songs tend to be less than merry affairs, including the 11 tracks on their seventh and newest studio album “Autumn” (Yep Roc Records).
Banjo player Chandler Holt, who contributed the relatively upbeat love song “If I Had My Way,” refers to the “songwriting conundrum of Chatham County Line,” which involves juggling different styles as well as emotions.
“Chatham County Line really is the hardest band in the world to write for, because it can’t be too much of a straight-up bluegrass thing,” Holt says. “And my tunes aren’t tongue-in-cheek, but they’re not as serious as what Dave writes because he brings in enough of that.”
Serious is just how I write. That’s my jam, and it’s hard to write happy songs. I’ve definitely tried.
Not that Wilson, Chatham County Line’s primary songwriter as well as producer of the last three albums, necessarily agrees.
“I don’t know, in my mind this one actually is a little lighter in tone,” Wilson says of the new album. “But serious is just how I write. That’s my jam, and it’s hard to write happy songs. I’ve definitely tried. You can’t write a happy song in a minor key, though. And since I’m a control freak, I’ve been taking over the technical aspects as well. In my experience, producing means you wrangle troops, organize time, do a lot of file management in this digital-recording world and make final decisions about mixing. There are so many choices, it almost seems impossible to make the right decision.
“Songs and records are just moments you capture,” he adds. “The way I look at songs, they’re like architecture to me. I might like one for the structure, the way the chords interface versus what a standard listener might hear. Like this album’s ‘Jackie Boy,’ which started out as a super-long and super-terrible song about a dog. I’d try to revisit it and it got no better, until one day it all clicked into place.”
Chatham County Line will unveil “Autumn” Saturday night in Cary, a show that also marks the 40-year anniversary of radio station WUNC (91.5-FM). With any luck, the weather will cooperate enough for the band to be onstage in their trademark sharp-suit finery – a look they had to put aside back in July, when they played in the broiling afternoon heat at the Destination Dix Festival in Raleigh.
“We respect the crowd, so that’s why we dress up and do the showman thing rather than come out in overalls and have hay bales,” says Teer. “So we dress nice and present that way out of respect for the audience. Unless it’s hot as hell, like it was at Dix. But, look good, play good.”