Nostalgia can be a fine thing. In rapidly changing times, there's comfort in that which connects us to our family and our past. Nostalgia's subtext—and fallacy, I think—is that the more things change, the more they stay the same; everything's always changing. But Chatham County Line offers a sepia-stained window back through the strains of string music, the palette brightened by subtle flashes of contemporary sounds and themes. It's nostalgia that somehow looks forward.
While the Raleigh quartet has continued to switch things up across their five prior albums, including 2010's boundary stretching Wildwood, they remain first and foremost something like a bluegrass band. They read that way on stage as well, from the pressed suits to the unamplified, single-microphone setup. In a word, they feel timeless, erasing seams between ages and reminding us of the eternal verities of the heart.
Chatham County Line's charms are even more apparent live, an idea that the CD-and-DVD set Sight & Sound aims to capture. The single-mic setup ensures the entire quartet fits within the spotlight, reinforcing the single-unit concept and amplifying the power of the spine-tingling harmonies. Several very nice cuts and production decisions ameliorate the static nature of their configuration; the dissolving and multi-panel shots come edited in a manner to mimic the vibrancy of the music. There's an interview intermission about halfway through the set, which also offers surprising insight. (Disclosure: Independent Weekly music editor Grayson Currin speaks in the film.) "I feel you get the best of something by holding back," says guitarist Dave Wilson. "We're dying to be louder than all get out and get crazy, but you don't plug any of us in and keep us behind the microphone, which keeps us under control."
As for the music, it's what you've come to expect from Chatham County Line—thoughtful, well-crafted songs delivered with crisp chops and impassioned vocals. The standouts are all here: the minor-key elegy "Birmingham Jail," the sweet, gentle melody "Speed of the Whippoorwill," the rambunctious rave "Whipping Boy." There's nary a misstep among the 16 tracks. After 13 years and five terrific studio releases, you'd expect nothing less.
To those unfamiliar with the band, the twin-LP or single-CD release is a deep survey of the band's best, crowd-tested songs. The accompanying DVD is a terrific addition; the visual cues reinforce the homey, intimate nature of the music and performances. Five years ago, The Avett Brothers and Chatham County Line seemed to be on roots-guided paths toward big stages; they've made it in very different ways, Sight & Sound suggests. Here are four dedicated curators of our roots past, with the ability to translate it into something everyone can understand and appreciate.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Loud, live or Latin."