Raleigh band Chatham County Line is well-versed in rock 'n' roll, even if what you see onstage at one of their shows is four guys playing acoustically around a single microphone. Sure, the instrumentation—guitar, banjo, upright bass, fiddle and mandolin—reflects traditional bluegrass. Their songwriting, however, frequently reveals that these are city boys who grew up listening to classic rock radio.
Still, rock 'n' roll often allows, even demands, for the instruments to override the vocals, and that doesn't really fit what Chatham County Line is about. They understand the concept well enough—indeed, the band began largely as an outgrowth of a rock band called Stillhouse—but in this incarnation, it all comes down to the lyrics and the voices.
"The words are the most important thing; everything else supports that, whether it's a harmony or an instrumental part," guitarist Dave Wilson affirms on a sunny afternoon with his bandmates, who have gathered on the front porch of fiddle and mandolin player John Teer. "With a rock band, definitely there's some stuff to hide, and the overall thing can just sound good. But we want people to hear the words."
On Wildwood, the band's fifth album for local label Yep Roc Records, it's not just the words that stand out, but also the manner in which they're delivered. Though Wilson is clearly the band's lead vocalist, multipart harmonies have long been a hallmark of Chatham County Line's sound. Their singing has never been richer or more emotional than on Wildwood.
On "Alone in New York," a melancholy melody underscores the mood of a solitary stroll through the streets of Manhattan, and as the song nears its end, Wilson's voice reaches ever higher in desperation: "Is everyone alone, everyone alone in New York?" With singing that's somehow both plaintive and reassuring, "Ghost of Woody Guthrie" invokes the visage of its titular icon. "Blue Jay Way" (which, despite its title, has nothing to do with the Beatles song of the same name) is perhaps the band's finest vocal performance to date, the instrumentation subjugated almost entirely to a churchlike serenade of melody and harmony.
Chatham County Line has the chops for this: Wilson's voice is uncommonly engaging, with a warm, resonant tenor that's capable of surprisingly high flights. More commonly suited to the upper register is Teer, who's "a natural harmony singer from the get-go," Wilson observes. "If he tries to sing a song by himself, he's usually singing the harmony instead of the main melody."
Upright bassist Greg Readling is a kind of secret weapon, a masterful musician (he's also an accomplished piano and pedal steel player) who has an unerring instinct for the notes that sound good. "Greg's got a great ear where he can find that third part," Wilson explains.
Banjo player Chandler Holt adds that Readling "does a lot of the really fine-tuned hearing of, like, 'OK, that needs to move just a little bit this way.'"
Holt also contributes to the vocal mix on some songs. As Readling acknowledges, it can be a challenge when all of them are chiming in: "You introduce a fourth part, and it can be somebody singing an octave, or somebody's coloring it like a jazz chord. That's when it gets really tricky."
But there doesn't seem to be much Chatham County Line cannot handle these days, and that includes producing their own records. In the past, they've worked with the cream of the local producer crop, including three albums with Chris Stamey and one with Brian Paulson. But after they received co-producer credit for a recent side project collaboration with Norwegian singer-songwriter Jonas Fjeld, they decided they should escape to Asheville and make Wildwood themselves.
"We realized there wasn't a lot of smoke and mirrors involved," Wilson says. "It was really just making good decisions and making sure stuff sounded good and making sure you have a handle on the songs and the parts. We kind of felt like we had that. And all the stuff we'd learned from Stamey through the years, and working in different studios, led us to produce it ourselves. Plus you can spend the money on more days in the studio."
It was an especially bold decision considering that, for the first time ever, the band added drums. Old friend Zeke Hutchins, a bandmate of Wilson and Readling in their pre-CCL rock band Stillhouse (and the longtime drummer in Tift Merritt's band), joined them in Asheville. His contributions are admirably understated; indeed, it's easy to listen to the record without even noticing that the band made such a seemingly major change.
"On some of the earlier stuff, it's almost like you hear drums there even though they're not," says Teer. "A lot of the tunes that we play, we kind of have that attitude, that there's that extra element there."
Hutchins served as an extension of the songs' genesis, too. "I had done kind of a loose jam with Zeke and Jay Brown [Tift Merritt's bassist and another Stillhouse alum] in the basement, and a lot of the songs that are on this record came from that," Wilson says. "And so, when we got in the studio and had access for Zeke to come in, it was perfectly natural to just pick up the phone, because that's how some of the songs started."
Teer adds, "We've heard from a few people that they didn't even notice the drums, listening to the record. And that's good. We don't want it to be abrasive, but it just kind of fits right in."
That, of course, prompts the question of whether Chatham County Line might start playing with a drummer live. Remember, onstage, they gather around one microphone, just as they're gathered on the porch today. Drums get complicated.
"If there were tons of fans that were demanding it and were willing to pay the tariff, then we would be happy to do it," Wilson says. "But I think we've found a great niche with how we play together. Adding drums would not be a simple task; all of a sudden it becomes really technically difficult."
Just then, Readling chimes in, revealing the real reason that Chatham County Line is destined to remain a quartet—at least for now.
"The Honda Odyssey has four seats only," he says. "That's what it boils down to, really."