It’s called traditional bluegrass for a reason. Unless you are the Bad Livers, the Meat Purveyors, or another bluegrass outfit with animal protein in your title, you likely work within a well-worn set of parameters. You use acoustic instruments (exhibiting disdain for drums and Dobros), sing in harmony, and demonstrate good storytelling. Chatham County Line’s Speed of the Whippoorwill, the band’s well-executed third studio album, acknowledges but creatively blurs these parameters by thoughtfully complementing delicate harmonies, solid songwriting, and driving instrumental leads with the occasional pedal steel guitar and organ.
Though name-checked comparisons to other artists can become tiresome and misleading, they also can be very useful — and very complimentary. Chatham County Line’s bandleader, Dave Wilson, is likely in his 30s, but his voice has a power and delicacy reminiscent of the present elder statesman of bluegrass, Del McCoury. Wilson wrote or co-wrote all of the compositions on Speed of the Whippoorwill, and the mid-tempo title song includes a memorable melody that accentuates the longing in his voice: “I know I had to leave you/ there was work to be done / I swear when this job is over/ It’s to you I’m gonna run…”
Wilson and his three bandmates provide ample instrumental and vocal prowess for their relatively young age, as proved on opener “Company Blues”. “Rock Pile”, an upbeat number which borrows a rockabilly beat, demonstrates the band’s comfort with Nashville Bluegrass Band-style harmonies. Tight vocal harmonies are also a highlight of live-recorded “Lonesome in Caroline”, a song befitting a band that calls Raleigh, North Carolina, home. The beautiful gospel number “Waiting Paradise” asks if heaven will be the final home and is very reminiscent of — and on par with — Bill Monroe’s best gospel sides.
Monroe, however, likely wouldn’t approve of Chatham County Line’s stylistic deviations. These deviations come courtesy of Greg Readling, a multi-instrumentalist who has spent time with fellow North Carolinians Tift Merritt and Chris Stamey. Readling uses his understated pedal steel punctuation to create a classic country feel in the war narrative “Confederate Solider” and to provide a heap of heartbreak on “All the Ladies in the Town”. Although his contributions on the organ are less prominent, they still provide welcome color to the sonic palette. While Chatham County Line is certainly a traditional bluegrass band, they aren’t afraid to provide creative variations to an established theme.
Speed of the Whippoorwill is weakest during its pair of sub-two-minute love songs, “Day I Die” and “Come Back to Me”, which share an impromptu — and yet carelessly slapdash — feeling. Otherwise, this is a solidly-crafted release and a fine example of what keeps music fans — and bluegrass fanatics — coming back to this genre.