"Got any cold ones left inside?" calls Jonas Fjeld to journalist and fellow Norwegian Johnny Andreassen from the stoop of a quaint white home a quarter-mile from Raleigh's Cameron Village. Andreassen remembers that there's one Hell's Belle left and that the locally brewed ale lives up to its name.
Andreassen heads inside to grab the beer for Fjeld. But Dave Wilson, the singer and guitarist of Chatham County Line and Fjeld's long-time collaborator, finds Fjeld a pilsner. He promptly pops it open. Wilson and John Teer, CCL's fiddler/mandolin player, shuffle around the porch, taking intermittent drags from their cigarettes. Andreassen finally emerges from behind the screen door, the Hell's Belle in hand. He offers Fjeld a swig: "It's terrible," exclaims the middle-aged Norwegian folk legend of the Belgian-style brew.
At least we know Fjeld gives negative feedback: "He never said no to us," Wilson says later, discussing the early stages of collaboration between Fjeld and CCL. Brother of Song, a full-length studio album to be released in Norway February 24, is the newest product of their three-year relationship. The record is aptly titled, as Fjeld and the members of Chatham County Line are kindred spirits who share laughs, influences and—on this February afternoon—a few cold ones.
(from Troubadour, 1975)
DAVE WILSON: J.J. Cale is the shit. Jonas Fjeld patterned most of his later career on ripping off J.J. Cale and trying to be the Norwegian J.J. Cale. I started my career not knowing who J.J. Cale was. I got Really in college. That record is the best record. I like some J.J. Cale. Way back in the day, Stillhouse did "Magnolia" back before Chatham County Line existed.
JONAS FJELD: I met Cale in '77. We recorded at Crazy Mama's Studio. He was on the record in '78. Audie Ashworth, Cale's producer who produced this, produced a couple records for us in '77 and '78. I love it.
INDEPENDENT WEEKLY: How would you say Cale's songwriting influenced what you were doing in the late '70s and early '80s?
JF: The first time I heard Cale, in '75 I think it was, it blew my mind. His right hand, I mean... I grew up where, especially in Europe, the left hand was the most important guitar hand. The faster the left hand was, the better the guitar player. When Cale came around, I thought the right hand was the most important, for the groove. So that made its way into my music.
DW: Jonas still does a lot of songs where the beat is an influence, like "Gamla Meiner," a song he wrote that hasn't been recorded, that has that chug. I think J.J. Cale's greatest thing is the percussiveness and the laid-back attitude that exists throughout, and the fact that the vocals are where you can barely hear what he's saying. Even if you see him live, it's still the same mumbled kind of delivery that just sits in the song right. It's not like American Idol where it's all about the vocal or whatever. That's the worst.
JOHN TEER: I guess 10 years ago was when I started getting into J.J. Cale. "Magnolia," definitely rang true, just the laid-back feel and something cool about the groove, it was just so smooth. The bass and the bass drum had this great groove for me. It was easy to get into and relax. Made you sit right down and enjoy it. When I started listening to Jonas' earlier stuff, I could really hear the influence.
DW: [Cale] was one of the people [we said] when people asked 'What's he like? What's this Jonas Fjeld guy like?' It's hard to draw a comparison because there's not a direct correlation in the States to someone like [Fjeld]. You kind of have to put a bunch of people together. We started saying he was the Norwegian Sting. [Everyone laughs.] Because he's a great performer, but you've got to find somebody that does other people's songs. Then I started saying he's the Norwegian Eric Clapton. But he's not a guitar god, that's not his thing.
JF: I'm a rhythm guitar player.
DW: He does great vocal versions. It's all about the sum. It's all about the words to me. [To Fjeld] Not that your guitar isn't rocking.
JF: No, since I heard Cale, or even before Cale, I hated left-hand work. I could never play a solo and was not interested. My songwriting was the right hand, not the left hand. The band I used to play in, the other guitarist was a left-hand player and the faster he played, the better. But I was more into writing songs and using the guitar as a tool for writing.
DW: It's about substance, it's not about flash.
(from The Band, 1969)
IW: Obviously, the band was an influence on Chatham County Line. I've heard you cover "Jemima Surrender," at least.
DW: Love some Band, man. Those guys wrote some of the best music. It's another example of all the parts working together, the whole being greater than the sum of the parts. It's amazing how they made these records, where they picked the person who sounds best singing the song, where you don't just pick the obvious lead singer. You say, "This guy sounds better singing the song, so he's going to sing it." You can hear that on some of the outtakes, when they'll have someone else trying to sing the lead line or whatever. Rick [Danko] is a huge reason that we immediately said, "Yeah, we're doing it" when we got the e-mail from Jonas. The fact that he worked with someone of such caliber as Rick, no matter what part of the career it was, that's pretty cool.
IW: Jonas, could you talk a little about working with Rick? That's one of the first connections listeners in America can make, since you worked with him and Eric Andersen.
I met Eric first, in '83 I think. I played with him on NRK, Norwegian NPR. We did one song on the radio with the band I was playing with, but then I didn't see him again until a decade later when I met him in Oslo. Eric invited me to record on a record. The masters were lost for two decades, I think. What's the name? The lost tapes, after the Blue River album. [Ed. note: Stages: The Lost Album]
Rick was playing bass on that session, for those three songs that we did in addition to the old ones. That's the first time I met him, but I was already a fan of The Band in '68 when "The Weight" came around. We played it, and we got the drummer to sing because of Levon. [Room laughs.] [The drummer] didn't have a good voice! But we wanted to copy [The Band]. So I pinched my arms many times when I finally stood there, singing harmonies with Rick Danko. That was odd.
JT: Listening to this song, there's something about Richard Manuel and how desperate his voice sounds. For this tune, it just sounds real lonesome. As a whole, when you listen to different members of The Band, you get to become a part of what they're doing. You could talk about how great Rick is and his bass playing or Levon, who's one of my favorite drummers of all time. The Band was such a big influence on my life early on and nothing's gotten old. Every time I hear it, it never, never gets old.
I think, in Chatham County Line, we've always strived for that element to be original and have that freedom in a band and that structure they worked with. It's always been a big influence on all of us. That's how we got together, too. We were able to have that same feeling where we all loved The Band, and it was a good outlet for us to start writing and have that friendship together, too. Being able to hear Jonas' stories about being with Rick... what's that story about you and Rick and the gold record?
DW: He's got the freakin' gold record of the first album from The Band!
JF: After we finished recording with Eric, he had a gig at Tinker Café in Woodstock, so we all went up there. I remember Mick Ronson was there, and Rick and Eric. It was crazy. We all played, then we got back to Rick's house and we did a lot of "funny things," but all of a sudden it was morning and Rick had the gold record on the wall and he said, "You're going to have that!" So he crashed the glass and he signed it, the gold record, and said "It's yours. Take it back." It was hilarious.
DW: So now he's got it framed on his wall with a picture.
JT: Yeah, we saw that when we went over there and said "What the hell are you doing with The Band's gold record?" That story and there's one about you and Rick, what's the one I was thinking of?
JF: There's lots of stories. Some of them cannot be told. Oh, when we were in New York, we were about to play the Lone Star in New York and Gregg Allman was in town. Greg Allman was friends, of course, with Rick and Eric, and Rick said "Gregg, you've got to get in on this gig." And I said, "Rick, you know, we may have to rehearse." So Gregg said yeah, so he rented a suite at the hotel where were staying for the rehearsals. He had a B3 brought to the suite. And he asked me what I wanted to have, I mean, naughty alternative cigarettes. But I only do cold ones. So I've never seen so many cold ones in a hotel room. There were buckets and buckets and buckets, on every fuckin' stool or table. Not one note was played. [Room laughs.]
JT: Was it Salvador Dalí who came to your show?
JF: No, that was Salman Rushdie. That was in New York in '97. He loved the trio, so he came to the show. He came with two bodyguards and came back and asked for our autographs. That was hilarious for me. It was great. I said, 'You can get mine if I get yours.' So I got his, and he got mine.
The Avett Brothers
"The Weight of Lies"
(from Emotionalism, 2007)
DW: [Sighs.] This is The Avett Brothers. They are the successful band with the banjo, where the guys in the band are between 25 and 40. I mean, they're good, it's just ... you know, they've just added drums now, and a cellist. I mean, is there that in bluegrass? They are the worst bluegrass band I've ever heard in my life.
JT: No, no. We met them, I guess in 2003, at the IBMA. We were playing a hotel room with them, a showcase thing in a small hotel room in Kentucky.
DW: You could tell there was something there with those two brothers and Bob. You knew it was going to go somewhere, but it's crazy how huge it's gotten. Thousands of people.
IW: You heard they're opening eight shows for Dave Matthews Band?
DW: That is the worst decision ever. I think they can almost do that kind of tour themselves. Dave Matthews already sells all these places out. You're only doing it to expose them to this audience, not because you're going to bring more people out. They should be used with another act that doesn't draw a lot of people because that's why you do big shows. You bring out people to find out about other kinds of music. I think you don't have to tell Dave Matthews fans about The Avett Brothers. They'll find out about them because they're freakin' everywhere.
JT: I see where they're doing that and trying to get a different crowd with that. I was thinking about that the other day, with how Dave Matthews started out, and seeing them open up for Widespread Panic at The Ritz back in '94 or whatever it was. They've come a long way and just built that fanbase.
DW: Just hearing the bootlegs. Those bootlegs used to circulate when I was in college and you're like, "Who is this? What is this? I know this is gonna be huge." It's just an undeniable thing. I think The Avett Brothers have a similar quality, where you hear it and you don't know whether you like it or not, but it's good and you want to check it out.
"I Am The Black Wizards"
(from In the Nightside Eclipse, 1994)
JOHNNY ANDREASSEN: They're not the best black metal band.
DW: Yeah, tell him the best black metal band. Write this down.
JA: Satyricon. [Ed. note: Emperor and Satyricon shared multiple members over their respective histories.]
DW: You've gotta reach a certain audience with this stuff: angry, teenage testosterone.
JF: Well, it's not my style. Not right now. I used to love Captain Beefheart in my teens, but that was not the issue in the '70s. I saw Deep Purple, and I loved Deep Purple and especially Captain Beefheart.
Ali Farka Touré & Ry Cooder
(from Talking Timbuktu, 1994)
IW: This is the Ry Cooder collaboration from 1994 with Ali Farka Touré, the guitarist from Mali.
DW: A record I need to get.
JA: Beautiful song.
JT: Oh, I've heard this. This is killer, man. I've always been a huge fan of Cooder. His mandolin playing is really influential for me. It's a different kind of blues mandolin playing, reminding me of Yank Rachell, an old blues mandolin player. The fiddle in here reminds me a lot of Don "Sugarcane" Harris, who's a badass, like a Hendrix on the fiddle back in the '70s. He had some great stuff that really blew my mind. If you ever want to hear some of that stuff, there's a live CD that's got a blue fiddle with nails in it on the cover, that's from the Berlin Jazz Festival. [Ed. note: Got The Blues] It's some crazy, crazy violin work that he does in this blues style. But all of Cooder's records are just amazing, and he's got a great tone. He's a big influence.
DW: He found a great way to stay relevant and keep doing new things, and that's by collaborating with different people. It's still him, in his essence.
JA: Ry Cooder has never repeated himself. The Band has. So when you told me some years ago that you wanted to be the bluegrass answer to The Band, you should have said you wanted to be the bluegrass answer to Ry Cooder.
JF: Cooder played on the first Captain Beefheart record, Safe as Milk.
DW: [Collaboration] is good for you, too. We love doing this because you're working with someone else and seeing how they work. You get to concentrate on your playing and things like harmonies. I think it's made us a stronger band. I think it shows on IV, and it's going to continue to be shown. It makes me want to work with other people. Get rid of this guy and get somebody else, like Shakira.
IW: On this record, Ry Cooder and Ali Farka Touré didn't even share a language. How did you guys feel when you first started playing these songs with Jonas that were in Norwegian and you didn't really know what he was saying?
DW: It's weird, but you could tell from the tonal quality and his delivery that there was something there. There was something to it that you wanted to be a part of, the way he sings. And because Norwegian music, too, from everything he's told us and everything we've picked up, is poetry. He talks about the guy he works with Ole Paus, who they say is the Bob Dylan of Norway. He supposedly writes amazing stuff, and it just sucks because we want to learn the language.
JT: Yeah, there was always something about the delivery when we first heard it, and even seeing him live and seeing how the people embraced Jonas. It's the live show, especially, and the way his voice comes out. People just identify with it. When we started playing with him, I asked him if I could sing some with him. I just took the CDs he sent, the demo stuff, and tried to translate phonetically what it sounded like. So when we're over there, I'll try to sing harmonies in Norwegian and the crowd, of course, laughs. They're pulling for me, but they're laughing
DW: And I think they respect it. You're so close-knit with your language being such a small country population-wise, that when someone tries to learn your language, you feel good about it.
IW: Jonas, how did it feel to put your songs in their hands when you sent them the demos?
JF: That's what music's all about, putting new ideas to the songs. After being in a band, that's what I loved, playing with different people and having different guests. The old song is getting a new song. You get a totally different tonality.
DW: He never said no to us.
JF: I wanted to be fresh. That was the goal. I love that. I've done it with Norwegian folk instruments like the Hardanger fiddle, and it's the same songs, but whole different attitude. It's inspiring to discover new ideas, new attitudes and new sounds in the song. Particularly this, I've dreamed of years to do it. Get rid of the fuckin' cable and do it the traditional way—acoustic.
Jonas Fjeld and Chatham County Line make their Raleigh debut Thursday, Feb. 12, at Berkeley Cafe at 8 p.m. Tickets are $10-$12, and the show is a dress rehearsal before the band ships to Europe for a tour in support of Brother of Song.