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.