It's a breathtaking beginning: As "Chip of a Star" opens (and with it, IV), banjo and acoustic guitar curtsy, then dance, the results too brisk for a waltz, too fragile for a reel. It's the aural equivalent of pine-scented. You can picture a wandering stream, mountain-born and pure.
Stop on that last word: Chatham County Line has the harmonies, the skilled players, the setup. Chatham County Line even has purity awards, like a Best New Band nod from the RockyGrass competition. But it's not a pure bluegrass band any more than The Band or Gillian Welch—two names that come to mind frequently during IV—are pure anything.
The quartet's work carries the knack for storytelling typically associated with folk music, and when standup bassist Greg Readling moves to pedal steel, it taps into country & western's ability to swing. Rustic stomper "Let It Rock" presents a compelling case for its lyrical claim that acoustic music can shake a house down. "Whipping Boy," which borders on Steve Earle near-roots rock, reflects the ghosts of rock bands past found in some corners of Chatham County Line's sound. At the other end of the spectrum are "Clear Blue Sky" and "Paige," a pair of dexterous instrumentals just in case those award benefactors are listening in. It's music built for gathering the family around the big ol' Philco radio, but with the technique, conviction and passion to work in a MySpace sort of world.
However one defines the music, though, it serves the songs beautifully. The words and their messages carry that same sense of timelessness and eternal relevance as the sound. Man has been singing about love's brutal, beautiful ache since the first note took flight, but on "The Carolinian" and "One More Minute," Chatham County Line makes you feel like the group invented leaving trains and yearning. In the guise of a love-struck victim of a brief encounter, Dave Wilson sings "She's in Richmond with my heart, and I'm bound for Carolina" during the former, as Chandler Holt's banjo lends the train-track soundtrack. During "One More Minute," John Teer tugs heartstrings with mandolin strings. Wilson pleads for "one more minute, one more second," backed by hand-in-hand harmonies from guest Caitlin Cary. Then it's off to catch another damn train. Closer "Thanks"—a quietly rousing hybrid that showcases the band's comfort with country-gospel—appropriately carries the weight of farewell, too.
But IV's most powerful statement, both musically and lyrically, is the scarred-soulful "Birmingham Jail." It's about the 1963 church bombing in Birmingham and the groundswell of hate that led to it. But mostly it's about the four young lives lost among "the rubble of the hatred of scared white men"—a realization that gives the album's title sudden added weight. As Teer's fiddle reflects the sound of heartstrings torn, "Birmingham Jail" looks ugly history in the eye without flinching.
It's comforting to know that, amid such despair, you can always return to the opening "Chip of a Star" and its unabashed hopefulness. It's an ode to the mystical alchemy that creates beauty: "Take the song of a bird and turn it to words/ and when you're through, you've found a voice for you." IV is an exceptionally eloquent love letter to roots music, one written with appreciation for the past and big plans for the future.
A pair of CD release shows for IV begins at Cat's Cradle Friday, March 7, at 9:15 p.m. Tickets are $12 in advance and $15 at the door, and the everybodyfields opens. On the 8th, CCL will be at Lincoln Theatre with Amy Lavere opening. Tickets are $12 in advance and $15 at the door, and the show starts at 9 p.m.