A cursory glance at the title of Chatham County Line’s fourth album might make you wonder if the quartet’s imaginative muse has deserted them. Thankfully, you’d be wrong. Instead, IV happens to be a quiet indie revolution in the field of edgy yet traditional bluegrass, which bands like Crooked Still have recently been tilling. The themes which pervaded Chatham County Line’s earlier records — poverty, social justice, romantic heartachem and that old country blues staple, trains — are again present, only this time they’ve woven some subtle grassed-up pop and a little more kick-ass rock than recently into the fabric of their literate story-songs.
“There has always been a progression” in the band’s music, or so Chris Stamey claims. And he should know. Because it was Stamey who landed them their contract with Yep Roc records soon after seeing the quartet perform at a send-off tour party for country singer Tift Merritt in 2003. Apart from a brief hiatus which found him replaced by Brian Paulson (Beck, Wilco) on the group’s most traditional and least varied album, 2006’s Speed of the Whippoorwill, Stamey (a member of jangle-pop quartet the dB’s), has since served as Chatham County Line’s regular producer.
But the influences of your formative years are always going to bleed through eventually. A roots-rocker at heart, Chatham County Line’s singer and main songwriter Dave Wilson came to bluegrass late — “through the Jerry Garcia connection”, as he himself confesses — after stints in Grateful-Dead-inspired garage bands and in mid-’90s local Raleigh, North Carolina, southern rockers Stillhouse. It wasn’t until the end of the decade that he got together with dexterous pickers Chandler Holt (banjo), John Teer (mandolin/fiddle), and Greg Readling (upright bass/steel guitar) and the blue light just came shinin’ through. Although Wilson and Readling did continue, around this time, to play simultaneously in Merritt’s country rock band the Carbines (two of whom, Zeke Hutchins and Jay Brown, knocked around ideas for this album with Wilson during jam sessions held in the songwriter’s basement) and Chatham County Line.
So, when Wilson would like to see the listener keep the beat as fifth member and drummer, “whether it be stomping your foot or tapping on the steering wheel”, his sentiment is neither all that surprising nor entirely advisable. Because listening to the choice acoustic rockers, here, like the addictive hook-laden opener “Chip of a Star”, the romping, sugar-shack hoedown “Let It Rock”, or the grassy folk-rock of “I Got Worry” whilst positioned behind the wheel of any form of transport is a lawsuit waiting to happen.
The strongest tunes, however, still remain Chatham County Line’s trademark epic story-songs in the mould of the melancholy title-track off the band’s second album, Route 23. Just listen to Wilson’s yearning nasal country blues drawl eloquently relating the 1963 civil rights struggle for desegregation in schools on the misleadingly buoyant “Birmingham Jail”, while the high lonesome whine of steel guitar and gently plucked banjo form a backdrop for a passionate tale of cat houses, poverty, and alcholism on “Sweet Eviction”, with the pleading line “Don’t be afraid to change your ways” resonating from the bottom of an almost empty glass. Let’s hope they don’t change theirs too much.