In business terms, Chatham County Line would be considered a loss leader. Lacking the punk credentials and crossover appeal of fellow bluegrass revivalists Old Crow Medicine Show, the Raleigh, North Carolina act has held true to its roots, writing its own songs steeped in American lore. With acts like Mumford & Sons and offshoots such as the Lumineers charting off of variations of the sound Chatham County Line helped to rekindle, the foursome have yet to reap their just rewards. To their credit, the quartet continues to issue their own dynamic music.
Their latest, Tightrope, is the culmination of the band identifying its strengths and legacy following the 2012 release of Sight & Sound, their recorded-live, career-overview album and film. Striving for every song “to be on the future greatest hits album,” the songs on Tightrope were woodshedded over a number of months in various studios, a high school auditorium, and vocalist/guitarist Dave Wilson’s basement. Organic development of the arrangements were finalized during these informal sessions, allowing song and melody fragments to coalesce before the band settled in to record at Sound Pure Studios.
The band’s understanding and knowledge of the finished songs are evident on Tightrope. The loose playing on “Tightrope of Love” and the seemingly false start to “Should Have Known Better” exhibit a practiced yet unpolished approach for a band devout on propagating traditional stringband instrumentation. Filled with loss and love, the highlights of Tightrope are the album’s more poignant moments. A war motif dots the album, from the detailing of the generations-removed “Hawk” to the piano-driven Civil War requiem, “Final Reward”, which closes the album, speaking directly to the band’s Southern upbringing and its given geographic history: “This country was built on arrogance / And the blood of the fallen men / When brother shot brother those years ago.”
Amid the band’s trademark harmonies, familiar melodies are laced throughout Tightrope, but ones not associated with Chatham County Line. The verses of “Sixteen Years” recall Bruce Springsteen’s “I’m On Fire”, down to the sexual tension in lines like “She came easy like a doe in heat / Squirming like a viper in her vinyl seat.” “Any Port in a Storm” draws its melody and vocal phrasing from U2’s “Trip Through Your Wires”, albeit at a slower rate.
Ultimately, Tightrope falls short of the band’s expectations but exerts its own charms, adding to Chatham County Line’s canon. Since the band waited four years between new releases, the tide has turned in favor of the upstarts. The belabored nature of Tightrope speaks to Wilson’s comment that “the next generation is coming.” Struggling with the purity of its chosen narrow genre against the potential commercial appeal it helped bring about, Tightrope fails to reach the heights of 2010’s Wildwood, delivered in a time before their progeny took hold.