Chatham County Line Drum Up Something New for 'Strange Fascination'

Photo: Courtesy of Yep Roc Records

Bluegrassy Chatham County Line expand their sound into alternative country with a natural fluidity on Strange Fascination.

Strange Fascination
Chatham County Line

Yep Roc

24 April 2020

That Chatham County Line aren't exactly a bluegrass band has long been an overplayed theme. The rock and country influences come through, but the instrumentation, arrangement, and performances have frequently suggested a bluegrass band pushing boundaries rather than a musical act miscategorized. With Strange Fascination, though, the group make a clear step away from their original sound. Most obviously, they add drums on each track of the album a first for them. More subtly but no less distinctly, they continue their tendency toward other sorts of songwriting. It's a natural step for the band and one that, even a couple decades into their award-winning career, suits them.

The title track best exemplifies the group's shift from bluegrass to, in this case, alt-country. "Strange Fascination" echoes early Wilco. When Dave Wilson sings, "You don't know how lucky / You don't know how lucky you are," he draws out of Jeff Tweedy's vocal playbook. The band, though, fill the song with its own flourishes, and even just a light mandolin touch here or there reminds us who we're listening to. "Free Again" continues that feel. Chatham County Line's maturation lands on an unexplored path not taken from the No Depression scene.

To linger on those two tracks would miss the breadth of the album's music, though. "Leave This World" feints at a hidden hoedown even while putting on its Sunday best. Wilson's song mixes old-time suggestions with glimpses of gospel; it blends pop-rock with Appalachia. The sound, filled out by harmonica, builds slowly enough that it never really crescendos even though it provides a lift. "Guitar (For Guy Clark)" puts the band in country-folk territory. The group stays properly restrained. The song would work fine as just a vocals-and-guitar cut, but the mild embellishments situate it nicely in the context of the album.

The term "Americana" has become vague enough to make its usefulness a little wobbly, but it's apt for where Chatham County Line is right now. Last year's Winter Stories with Judy Collins and Jonas Fjeld showed the group's strength in developing an atmosphere, in that case, one that stretched from Norway to the American midwest. Their fluidity allows them to move broadly without sacrificing the core elements of their sound, their tinkering (even large-scale percussive tinkering) moves them throughout a broad genre category without ever diluting their art.

The group eases out of the album with "Nothing", a cool reflection that could fit next to Justin Townes Earle on a playlist. The band's casual sound here makes for a fitting exit. The group finds a home wherever their land sonically (or geographically, given the success of their time with Fjeld). That hominess hides the heavy work behind the rest, a sound made malleable over the years and now turned to whatever direction the band wills. That flexible skill makes an ongoing fascination feel not so strange.





'Modern' Is the Pinnacle of Post-Comeback Buzzcocks' Records

Presented as part of the new Buzzcocks' box-set, Sell You Everything, Modern showed a band that wasn't interested in just repeating itself or playing to nostalgia.


​Nearly 50 and Nearly Unplugged: 'ChangesNowBowie' Is a Glimpse Into a Brilliant Mind

Nine tracks, recorded by the BBC in 1996 show David Bowie in a relaxed and playful mood. ChangesNowBowie is a glimpse into a brilliant mind.


Reaching for the Sky: An Interview with Singer-Songwriter Bruce Sudano

How did Bruce Sudano become a superhero? PopMatters has the answer as Sudano celebrates the release of Spirals and reflects on his career from Brooklyn Dreams to Broadway.


Inventions Conjure Mystery and Hope with the Intensely Creative 'Continuous Portrait'

Instrumental duo Matthew Robert Cooper (Eluvium) and Mark T. Smith (Explosions in the Sky) release their first album in five years as Inventions. Continuous Portrait is both sonically thrilling and oddly soothing.


Esperanza Spalding and Fred Hersch Are 'Live at the Village Vanguard' to Raise Money for Musicians

Esperanza Spalding and Fred Hersch release a live recording from a 2018 show to raise money for a good cause: other jazz musicians.


Lady Gaga's 'Chromatica' Hides Its True Intentions Behind Dancefloor Exuberance

Lady Gaga's Chromatica is the most lively and consistent record she's made since Born This Way, embracing everything great about her dance-pop early days and giving it a fresh twist.

Love in the Time of Coronavirus

Street Art As Sprayed Solidarity: Global Corona Graffiti

COVID-19-related street art functions as a vehicle for political critique and social engagement. It offers a form of global solidarity in a time of crisis.


Gretchen Peters Honors Mickey Newbury With "The Sailor" and New Album (premiere + interview)

Gretchen Peters' latest album, The Night You Wrote That Song: The Songs of Mickey Newbury, celebrates one of American songwriting's most underappreciated artists. Hear Peters' new single "The Sailor" as she talks about her latest project.


Okkyung Lee Goes From Classical to Noise on the Stellar 'Yeo-Neun'

Cellist Okkyung Lee walks a fine line between classical and noise on the splendid, minimalist excursion Yeo-Neun.


Alastair Sim: A Very English Character Actor Genius

Alastair Sim belongs to those character actors sometimes accused of "hamming it up" because they work at such a high level of internal and external technique that they can't help standing out.


Joe Hertler & the Rainbow Seekers Head "Underwater" in New Video (premiere)

Celebrating the first anniversary of Paper Castle, folksy poppers Joe Hertler & the Rainbow Seekers release an uplifting new video for opening track, "Underwater".


Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith's New LP Is Lacking in Songcraft but Rich in Texture

Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith's The Mosaic of Transformation is a slightly uneven listen. It generally transcends the tropes of its genre, but occasionally substitutes substance for style.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.