Wildwood, Chatham County Line’s fifth full-length album since their self-titled 2003 debut, finds the group continuing to go from strength to strength. The Raleigh-based band’s subtly evolving brand of bluegrass, country, and folk remains instantly reassuring, while the stellar quality of their original song-writing keeps their work fresh and relevant. The new album expands their sound to include piano, drums, and other instrumentation, and while there’s no single track here that has the power and impact of “Birmingham Jail”, the great song about the 1963 Baptist Church Bombing from their last release IV (2008), with Wildwood Chatham County Line have produced their most sustained and consistently compelling record yet.
Once again, the quartet prove themselves adept at both reflection and exuberance on Wildwood. Dave Wilson’s warm, reedy vocals and the sympathetic accompaniment and harmonies of banjo player Chandler Holt, bassist Greg Readling, and multi-instrumentalist John Teer create an inviting tone. The playing, as always, is exemplary: loose yet controlled, sensitive yet impassioned. The laconic but sturdy “Saturdays and Sundays”, the driving bluegrass of “Heart Attack”, the pop-meets-pedal-steel of “Out of the Running”, and the infectious closer “End of the Line” are among the album’s most immediately appealing moments. But it’s ultimately the tracks that tap into the genre’s tried-and-true themes of heartache and lonesomeness that cut the deepest, notably the truly gorgeous yearning of “Alone In New York” and the gentle, understated “Blue Jay Way”.
The disarming title track—on which the narrator gently extricates himself from the role of comforter and protector—and the sublime “Crop Comes In”—a dialogue between a “poor boy” and his demanding, upwardly mobile date which edges, musically, towards the Band—are also standouts. Even the tracks that sound irredeemably sappy on paper (a father’s expression of devotion to a newborn on “Porcelain Doll” and the unabashed love song “Honeymoon”) become tender, heartfelt statements thanks to tight arrangements, beguiling melodies, and the quiet authority of Wilson’s voice.
Despite consistent acclaim, Chatham County Line have yet to achieve the same level of international recognition of, say, Gillian Welch and David Rawlings, though they tap into a similarly rich and vibrant seam of Americana. But the accomplished and entirely delightful Wildwood—which has the same kind of unassuming, cordial warmth as Rawlings’s Friend of a Friend album from last year—will ensure that their reputation only continues to rise.