The fiddle and the mandolin were not John Teer's first musical loves, even if they are the instruments that now pay his bills. Teer is best known as the wide-smiling multi-instrumentalist of Chatham County Line, Raleigh bluegrass explorers who've become one of the state's most reliably fetching acts and have been nominated for a Norwegian Grammy in the process. But Teer initially fell for music in the same way as an incalculable number of other teenagers: plugging in an electric guitar and turning the volume knobs hard and to the right.
When he was in eighth grade, a new kid arrived in his North Raleigh neighborhood, a cheap electric guitar and several Jimi Hendrix posters in tow. Teer had listened mostly to whatever was on the radio, but the records Brian Harris played him took a strange new hold.
"Everything changed after that, when I was introduced to Hendrix. That's what I wanted to do," remembers Teer. That year, his parents purchased Harris' guitar and gave it to him for Christmas. "I was all about rock 'n' roll and guitar from that point. I was immersed in it."
But Chatham County Line has never afforded Teer much of a chance to play electric guitar. The band's songs stray subtly but decisively from typical bluegrass structures, and each December, they host a series of electric performances. Still, six years ago, at dinner just before one of those seasonal shows, Teer told his friend and fellow songwriter Roger Gupton that he wanted to write some rock songs and step away from his acoustic instruments. At last, that project—now called The Letter Jackets after being only The Jackets for five years—has released its self-titled debut, a wonderfully sparkling but sad set of 10 pop-rock dreams.
"He found," reckons Gupton, laughing, "a willing accomplice."
They quickly found another participant in Chandler Holt, Chatham County Line's banjo player. Holt had played guitar briefly in high school, but making music didn't become a strong interest until college, when he first picked up a banjo. Gupton had no idea that Holt could play guitar or even had an interest in the sort of pop-rock he and Teer hoped to make. But their first songwriting session immediately revealed the potential chemistry of the trio.
"Teer had this chorus that was 'Holding On.' Roger wrote some melodies, and I came up with the verse's lyrics almost immediately," remembers Holt. "If I could trace the band to one moment, that was it. We knew it could work."
If the band began with an electrified pow, though, it's often progressed only as a sputter: Gupton and Teer conceived of the band as a side-project because they knew that's all time might allow. Chatham County Line had a record deal, a manager and touring commitments. Gupton had his own songwriting and session work, and he'd just finished work on and tours behind two albums by Hotel Lights, the band of Ben Folds Five drummer Darren Jessee. Their quickly recruited drummer, Evans Nicholson, stays busy as a sideman. Aside from being the group's chief songwriter, Holt became their de facto scheduling assistant, too, coordinating rehearsals, recording sessions and occasional concerts when all four Jackets were in North Carolina at once.
"The communication has got to be that good. We're not guys who are 22 or 24 anymore, and everyone is just hanging around, with time to kill," says Holt, who married fellow bluegrass musician Kyra Moore last year. "I had to stay on top of everyone about their time."
The songs that shape The Letter Jackets span the length of the band's lifetime, from the lovesick sweetness of "Falling" to the shelter-in-the-storm trot of "In My Arms," a song Holt says he wrote for his wife. But the project's fits-and-starts nature doesn't hamper the material, largely recorded during one studio stint last year in Durham. Inspired by The Everly Brothers and Phil Spector, The Band and Badfinger, The Letter Jackets work a fertile intersection of pop and rock for 40 assured minutes. Outside of Chatham County Line, Holt uses a plaintive, plainspoken tenor, as though these songs are little life truths meant to be eased out and not overstated. Teer's guitar work sports the same verve and personality he adds to his main concern, but he lets loose, too, giving his electric room to roam in this wider format.
"I've always had this alter ego as a closet electric guitar player. There's a passion I have for it that I try to bring to Chatham County Line with mandolin and fiddle," he says. "But on this record, I was able to do more of that. Being able to plug in and get that release out is nice. I enjoy playing fucking loud."
What's more, The Letter Jackets have afforded its members—all consistently busy with other and more long-term projects—a sort of no-strings-attached versatility. It reinvigorates them for other projects by freeing them from songs they already know or audience expectations of what they do. It gives them a chance to connect with music in a relatively new, if old-fashioned, rock 'n' roll way.
Fresh from a brief weekend tour with The Letter Jackets into Virginia, Gupton compares the experience with the two-month stints he spent in touring vans stuffed with country-rock favorites The Backsliders and gear in 1999. That's an efficient way to get tired of friends, Gupton notes; The Letter Jackets, however, are just active enough to be productive without being irksome to one another or overly concerned about business.
"It takes the pressure off," says Gupton. "We don't run up against the same pressures that bands eating, living and breathing the same music every day do."
This article appeared in print with the headline "Ghosts and cloaks: Two bands of area veterans find wonderful new directions."