In Search of Southern Fried, Bourbon-soaked, Green Tomato Sandwiches
by Michael Lohr
Hillbilly avant-garde could be a term used to describe Chatham County Line. Innovative could be another. Last year they won “Best Country Song” and “Best Bluegrass Band” at the Indy Music Awards and with good reason. Hailing from the burgeoning hotbed of eclectic music, Raleigh, North Carolina, Chatham County Line have forged a sound all their own. One-third bluegrass, one-third country, one-third rockabilly, they have tapped into that special misty mountain muse that first set Bill Monroe down the path to legend.
I had the pleasure to see Chatham County Line perform this past September in Bowling Green, Ohio at the Black Swamp Arts Festival. Their concert performance was breathtaking. The band’s interaction with the audience was something special. CCL make you feel like you’re a close, personal friend hanging out with the band as they have an impromptu jam on their back porch; fried green tomato sandwiches, a pitcher of sweet tea and mason jar of moonshine being freely passed around.
CCL’s song catalog is something special too. From topical bluegrass standards such as “Company Blues”, “Wichita Central” and “Tennessee Valley Authority” to more lonesome, haunting and sometimes contentious songs like “Confederate Soldier” and “Butterwheel”. They write some of the finest bluegrass, country and Americana folk songs that you will ever come across.
Dave Wilson, the lead singer, who happens also to be a gifted songwriter and phenomenal flatpicker, sat down with me for a quick one-on-one about life, love, music and the curious rumor surrounding the Woody Guthrie Folk Festival a few years ago.
The composition of a typical CCL audience is an amalgam of bluegrass and country with just a dash of REM meets Old Crow Medicine Show alternative inflection. CCL are seemingly at home performing for any variety of musical fans, be they the alt country, Bonnaroo crowd or the more traditional, old time religion crowd. “Really all we need is an audience. Period. We like the challenge of a rock and roll audience and we also like the respect of a traditional audience. When we play in front of a rock’n’roll audience, I look at us as a gateway for people that might never naturally find traditional music.”
Does this reflect your eclectic musical background growing up? “I grew up with classic rock radio as really the only thing reaching my ears and I would have loved for an avenue to surface where I could have heard of people like John Hartford and Bill Monroe. I see us as that avenue.” Dave further explains, “I really hope that to these audiences we can show the energetic side of traditional and bluegrass music. I also love the traditional audiences. I feel like we show these people that younger musicians who could’ve dyed their hair and play Ted Nugent’s ‘Cat Scratch Fever’ actually respect the music and instruments. That we’re willing to dedicate our lives to it. And not only that, but are driven to contribute to the canon of songs of a genre that can move and change people. We’ve never really had negative feedback from any audience.”
There have been some bluegrass purists and critics complain about CCL’s rock and alternative country influences. They’ve even been called ‘guerilla bluegrass’, which is a dualistic term that can be interpreted as either endearing, or negative by some. Dave elucidates, “nothing really bothers us. We’re gonna play, write, and sing the music that we do because that is what happens when we get together. I didn’t know what a mandolin was until I was 18 years old so, I can’t write or play like I grew up with this music. I play and write this kind of music because when I finally was exposed to it, it moved me more than anything I’d ever heard before or since. If someone complains that we don’t sound enough like traditional 1946 bluegrass then they should listen to 1946 style bluegrass and not worry about us. Music is for bringing entertainment and joy into people’s lives not ulcers.” And as for the ‘guerilla bluegrass’ label he explains, “the term ‘guerilla bluegrass’ was something invented to describe our busking style in the early days of the band. Since we really need no amplification, we barnstormed bars, streets, people’s houses, Times Square, with our instruments and did impromptu shows.”
CCL’s musical influences are an eclectic grouping. Spanning the complete sphere of the artistic muse, the rich tapestry CCL weave is a lush amalgam of sound. Dave explains their musical influences, “in bluegrass, some of the first things I heard were Old & In The Way and the Stanley Brothers. When I first heard ‘Train ‘a Comin’ by Steve Earle, I thought, ‘wow, the stories that he is telling are so real set to the backdrop of those instruments.’ I was writing songs like that and realized that I wanted to tell my stories to that same style backdrop. But it was when I saw the Del McCoury band that I realized what sort of stage show I wanted to perform. That first show when I saw Del, the single microphone notion was a beautiful thing.”
I was pleased to discover that the music of John Hartford was a significant influence, not only on Chatham County Line, but Dave himself. “When I looked at John Hartford’s career from when he was with RCA and trying to record “hits” to where he went on his own with the Aeroplane band. I was influenced by his individuality. I mean I dig ‘Six ‘O Clock Train and the Girl with Green Eyes’ and I dig ‘Steamboat Whistle Blues’. I love the fact that he seemed to be such a natural performer. Whenever I feel uneasy on a stage due to sound or other problems, I think about the way he smiled on stage. . .it seemed such a natural place for him to be.”
On CCL’s non-bluegrass, non-country musical influences, Dave’s musical tastes proved very diverse. “Growing up, the first tape I ever owned was Life’s Rich Pageant by R.E.M. I remember hearing Guns ‘N Roses Appetite for Destruction and freaking out. The world is so different now because no matter where you are, you can listen to any kind of music you like, download what you want, anytime. It takes control away from Clear Channel and folks like that and puts it in the hand that holds the IPod. Listening to CCL you can hear shades of Bob Dylan, The Band, George Harrison, Drivin’ ‘n Cryin’, Gram Parsons, The Byrds. . .the list can really go on forever.” Dave, I completely agree with you. There is a musical revolution of-sorts going on, and the ultimate outcome right now, I believe, is still rather unclear. But most certainly, real music, of all genres, has gone underground and is thriving. Your success proves that.
CCL has released several fantastic records. Picking my favorite song or even narrowing it down to my favorite album is virtually impossible. So I thought I’d ask Dave which CCL records or songs he felt captured the quintessential CCL sound. “I think that Route 23 as an album captures more of the bluegrass sound of the band. The song ‘Dark Clouds’ from that record stands out to me because of the harmonies and the butchering mandolin work that John put on there. I really like the new record (Speed of the Whippoorwill) because it seems like the band is headed into its own world with the fusion of bluegrass with a little rock and folk and Gram Parsons style country and storytelling. I feel like some of our modern influences like the Jayhawks and Gillian Welch come bleeding through in parts.”
Dave once said that he envisioned CCL as similar to a rock band without a drummer, more so than a 1940’s traditional bluegrass band. But why does he feel that way? Dave responded, “I feel like the band is coming into its own as being hard to describe. I feel like a bluegrass band some days and some days I feel like a rock band. When you play these instruments and sing together the way we do, your mind says bluegrass band. But when it reaches peoples ears a lot of them say, ‘New Traditional,’ ‘Alt-Country,’ ‘Rock ‘n Roll’. It would be great if everyone had heard all of the music in the world so that these terms meant the same thing to everybody, but they really don’t. I like Dale Watson’s take on it, ‘pop music in the 70’s is what country is today.’”
Indeed, but bluegrass is timeless. A couple of years ago, it was rumored that CCL joined Arlo Guthrie onstage at the Woody Guthrie Folk Festival in Oklahoma for a major jam session. Never confirmed or denied, the appearance grew into legend. Supposed bootlegs of this jam session are always rumored to be around, but never seen. Since then, this incident has gone beyond rumor and has reached almost mythic proportions. Dave explains, “that rumor got out of hand and took on a life of its own. We had a great time at the festival and shared some tunes with Arlo, who we know through his daughter Sarah Lee, in the parking lot of the cheap hotel they put all the performers up in the town of Okemah. By the way, at the moment we are planning a Smithsonian Folkways record with Sarah Lee and Johnny Irion to come out later this year.”
Chatham County Line has played a significant number of gigs in Europe, with Norway being a place of particular popularity for the band. In fact, there is a live recording culled from various CCL and Jonas Fjeld (who is a major recording legend in Norway) gigs called Far Amerikabesok recently released on the Sony/BMG label there. Dave talks about this Euro connection. “The European audience knows more about our music than we do. It is great to play for these ultra-appreciative audiences who know Johnny Cash’s dog’s birthdate and who played 3rd rhythm guitar on a Dillard & Dillard record. The key is to not get too deep into one of these conversations with them or you will be embarrassed at some point. The audiences over there also appreciate our take on bluegrass. We played a show at the Borderline in London, England with the Hackensaw Boys last May and it was great to see their response to our song-driven set and their sweat-driven set.”
The storytelling component in CCL music is essential, as it is in bluegrass in general. The story behind the beautiful instrumental, ‘Brice’s Crossroads’ from Speed of the Whippoorwill has been considered controversial to some. “The tale behind ‘Brice’s Crossroads’, is simple. John Teer is distantly related to Bedford Forrest, a general in the Southern army during the war of northern aggression. In fact, his full name is John Forrest Teer. The song ‘Brice’s Crossroads’ is the location of one of his greatest battles.”
The music of Chatham County Line is a beautiful hodgepodge. Equal parts bluegrass, Americana and rebellion. They are, simply stated, one of the best bluegrass bands on the road today. Do yourself a favor and pick up a copy of Speed of the Whippoorwill or one of their other records today and if you get the chance, go see them live. I guarantee you’ll enjoy yourself immensely. To learn more about Dave Wilson and Chatham County Line go to their official website http://www.chathamcountyline.com/ or check out their My Space website to get the low down on all things CCL http://www.myspace.com/chathamcountyline.