On the Beat

Alabama’s newly elected senator has a musical connection to this NC band

Chatham County Line is, from left, Chandler Holt, Dave Wilson, Greg Readling and John Teer.
Chatham County Line is, from left, Chandler Holt, Dave Wilson, Greg Readling and John Teer. Steve Spottswood

Doug Jones’ U.S. Senate victory in Alabama on Tuesday night was of more than passing interest to local musician Dave Wilson – who once wrote a Chatham County Line song inspired in part by Jones.

The song is “Birmingham Jail,” from the popular Raleigh band’s 2008 album “IV.” It’s about one of the most notorious crimes of the civil-rights era: the 1963 bombing that killed four young girls at a church in Birmingham, Ala. Four decades after that bombing, two of its conspirators were finally brought to justice.

Jones, who was then a U.S. attorney in Alabama, prosecuted the case against Ku Klux Klansmen Bobby Frank Cherry and Thomas Edwin Blanton Jr. They were both convicted and sent to prison.

“I picked up the paper one day and read about how those guys had been convicted for what had happened all those years ago,” said Wilson. “And I was happy because justice had been served, but it sure seemed like it had been a little long to reach that point. So I sat down and wrote those lyrics out because those guys had gotten to live their lives.”

“Birmingham Jail” describes how the victims fell prey to “the hatred of scared white men.” The chorus goes:

Down in the Birmingham Jail

Down in the Birmingham Jail

You’ve had a chance to live your life

But now you’re locked.

After their conviction, Cherry died in prison in 2004 at age 74, while Blanton remains in prison at age 79. In a pre-election tweet this past Saturday, Jones called the case “the most important thing I have done.”

It was only during the Senate campaign that Wilson learned about Jones’ connection to the case.

“Yeah, I have this weird connection with Doug Jones because of that song,” Wilson said. “So I’m happy to support him for the positive things he’s done. It was awesome that he won.”

Though not known for overt politics, Chatham County Line has not shied away from taking a stand. In the wake of House Bill 2, North Carolina’s controversial bathroom bill, the group dropped the North Carolina state flag as its onstage backdrop last year because the flag “does not currently convey” inclusivity.

Eventually, HB2 was partially repealed. But Chatham County Line decided to make the ban permanent.

“Occasionally we’ll still get somebody who feels let down because that was a part of the show that was important to them,” Wilson said. “But that’s part of why we took it down. We want our music to stand on its own and not be confused by political meanderings, especially terrible ones.”

Chatham County Line’s next local performances are the group’s annual “Electric Holiday Tour” – Wednesday night at Raleigh’s Lincoln Theatre and Saturday night at Haw River Ballroom in Saxapahaw.

Learn the story behind the collaboration between the band Chatham County Line and Big Boss Brewing to produce "Chatham County Line Autumn Amber Ale".

David Menconi: 919-829-4759, @NCDavidMenconi

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