North Carolina’s Chatham County Line is a neo-bluegrass band of great skill and aptitude, led by guitarist/singer Dave Wilson. If all you need from an album is sincerity, then start polishing off the Grammy right now; this record is caked in sincerity, covered in it like mud on a 4X4. Sadly, it is too busy being sincere to be a whole lot of fun… but we’ll get to that in a minute.
First, let’s praise them for what they do well. They are a hell of a band, capable of hoeing down on instrumentals like “Gunfight in Durango” as well as on slow country/blues waltzes like “Take Heed”. Tracks like “Nowhere to Sleep” crackle with reverence for Bill Monroe and other giants of the bluegrass tradition, down to the whole rhyming of “Not a place to lay my head” with “Somebody’s gonna find me dead”. And they can take the basic formula of bluegrass and tweak it to find some real pathos—this trick works like a charm on “Ruination,” a distraught hymn to losers and vagrants and forgotten lonely soldiers.
Dave Wilson’s voice is a sad ol’ thing. He gives the performance of a lifetime on “Saro Jane”, a modal tale of lost love full of haunting images (lonely pines, stove gone dark); when Caitlyn Cary shows up to do some ghostly Stevie Nicks-like guest vocals at the end, it becomes truly Tusk-like, and epic. Even when they turn up the BPM, like on closer “Born to Be With You”, he still sounds bereft and lost. Which is cool: I’m really tired of everything having to be all happy and chipper all the time.
But there’s a difference between being sad and being boring, and I’m afraid that CCL crosses the line more often than I’d like. Some of it is a refusal to live in the modern world. We’re definitely living in the way-back file here: in “Dark Clouds”, some “rounders” steal all the hapless narrator’s “silver” from a bank, and he hears that his parents have died from “Western Union”. I was digging the whole mid-period-Dylan looseness of “Engine No. 709” until Wilson started to sing about how he was “goin’ up the country” and how his girlfriend’s name was “Sweet Eliza Sue”. Hell, everyone I know in North Carolina is named Erika or Rachel or Sophie or Keisha.
Yes, that was a snotty comment. But you know what I mean, right? If this music is so great, why must it live in the past? Why can’t we have a bluegrass band that sings songs about this century? Why does everything have to plod rather than pop? Is CCL saying that today’s world is too debased and unworthy to sully their wonderful pure music?
Well, whatever. I probably wouldn’t be asking these questions if the tempos were a little faster, and if there was a laugh or two to be found here. Bluegrass music, even if it is skillfully-done, should not be humorless, and it should not make you want to listen to other forms of music. This is a fine restful record with good performances and good songs. But if CCL doesn’t kick it out a little bit on the next record, it will be okay to ignore them from here on out.