Stillhouse is a supergroup in reverse: In 1998, the quintet formed from loose jam sessions at Raleigh's famed musician dive, the Blue House on Boylan Avenue.
The lineup originally included Dave Wilson, Greg Readling, Jay Brown, Colby Berry and Craig Emmons. You might recognize those first two names as co-founders of Chatham County Line. Apart from his role in country act Tonk, Brown has long served as Tift Merritt's bassist and harmony singer.
Some of the Stillhouse principals lived in the house, but they all shared musical interests. Practicing became their daily entertainment. They started with bluegrass; Readling added pedal steel to songs originally written without it. Eventually, they shifted toward the territory of Gram Parsons and The Flying Burrito Brothers, gently blurring most every line between country, bluegrass and rock.
"We had free cable from the business next door," Wilson remembers, "but [playing music] was a lot more fun than the free cable."
Berry eventually resigned for law school, while Emmons headed to Portland, Ore., to join a rock band. Stillhouse recruited Zeke Hutchins on drums, but because the entire four-piece subsequently spent a few years on the road backing Merritt, it took the band seven years to record anything beyond an early five-song demo.
There was a silver lining to that delay, at least: It allowed Wilson to sort through his songbook slowly, routing songs that wouldn't quite fit into Chatham County Line's acoustic repertoire to the older Stillhouse. Especially when electrified and backed by Hutchins, Wilson's Southern rock and classic pop tendencies on Stillhouse's 2005 debut Through the Winter offered a stark contrast to the mostly traditional bluegrass CCL released that same year on its second album, Route 23. Between the twangy harmonies and handclaps of the jangling Winter opener "Waiting to See" and the smoldering guitars of "Sold American," the bands shared a mindset and members, but their sounds were distinct.
But Chatham County Line soon began defying the instrumental conventions of bluegrass. Readling supplied organ, for instance, and Hutchins played drums on 2010's Wildwood. The group left behind genre strictures, transforming itself with a rock-edged, pop-graced brand of Americana. Eight years in the making, Stillhouse's follow-up, The Great Reprise, shows that the bands have now dovetailed into similar territory. Wilson, turns out, is a great songwriter, not a great bluegrass, country or rock songwriter. Beyond the lack of fiddle, mandolin and banjo, the yearning acoustic beauty of Stillhouse's "Put It Back" or the breezy pop of "Leave This World" could belong to CCL. Stillhouse may have started first, and Chatham County Line's success may have taken away their ability to work quickly, but now both bands share the same larger-than-rules outlook on crafting classic tunes.
"I'm finding my own voice as a songwriter instead of trying to pair it with other styles of songs," Wilson explains. "It's great for Chatham County Line because it takes us away from that stodgy, old people's bluegrass that there's enough of out there."
Sure, Wilson sometimes plans a song for a particular band based on practical reasons; the open guitar tunings he relies on with Stillhouse tunes, for instance, don't lend themselves to CCL's one-acoustic approach. But as his main quartet's abilities have evolved and expanded over the last decade-plus, they've often defied expectations of just what they could do. To wit, Wilson assumed "Chip of a Star" was destined for Stillhouse. But after producer Chris Stamey listened to some Stillhouse rehearsal tapes, he suggested that the band record it for their 2008 LP, IV. Holt added a banjo line where Wilson had never imagined one, and the song became the album's cheery stunner.
Each winter, Chatham County Line plays a series of electric shows as the holidays approach, typically enlisting Brown, Hutchins and Johnny Irion (who contributed slide guitar and vocal overdubs on Through the Winter) for support. Those shows have maintained the musicians' interest in Stillhouse—especially the push to make a second record. After finally finding some shared free time in 2011, the band retreated to a former general store in Konnarock, Va., and set up a studio. Brown equates it to a gentlemen's hunting trip. Songs were their target, though, not wild game.
"When we go to record, it's a social event as well," Brown explains. "There's a certain whimsical spirit and camaraderie with this band that we try to maintain."
This freewheeling attitude led to moments like the unique percussion of "Automobile," which Hutchins recorded after messing around on toy drum set.
"My favorite tunes from the record were ones like 'Automobile,' which were just goofy ideas that didn't even have any structure, key, melody or anything," Wilson says. "We'd just goof on it and two takes later, we'd have a song."
While the members downplay the seriousness they bring to Stillhouse, Wilson remembers building up his personal collection of used vinyl from bookstores and record stores in high school. For him, it felt important to release The Great Reprise on vinyl, even if they had to pay for it out of pocket.
"When we started getting the songs together, I wanted to make each side make sense and make it 40 minutes long," Wilson explains. "In this digital age, people are probably just going to buy it on iTunes or rip it from a friend, but just being able to have that supreme souvenir of the vinyl record—well, they can bury me with it."
This article appeared in print with the headline "Friends are four."