Chatham County Line

    Speed of the Whippoorwill


    Like Civil War re-enactors (or historical interpreters, as they prefer to be called), the members of Chatham County Line are iconoclastic stalwarts who refuse to bow down to the perpetual tugging of modernity. Electric guitars? Ha. Breathable fabrics? Surely, you jest. With their third album, Speed of the Whippoorwill, the members of Chatham County Line cement their place as bluegrass heroes in the making.


    Speed of the Whippoorwill signals a distinct sonic maturation for Chatham County Line. Dave Wilson’s once amorphous strumming is much more pronounced, giving his acoustic guitar an entirely new timbre. John Teer’s mandolin playing has become more reserved, as he distances himself from the frenetic picking of 2005’s Route 23 for the percussive “clucking” of the clawhammer style. He also relinquishes the mandolin for his trusty fiddle more than ever. Bassist Greg Readling adds an entirely new amplified (gasp!) dimension to the band with his crackerjack pedal steel. And Chandler Holt’s banjo playing is more varied than before, because he vacillates between strumming and flat-picking.


    Wilson’s writing takes a turn toward the lighthearted. He continues to conjure vivid images of unrequited love (“Come Back to Me”), mischief (“Rock Pile”), and useless toiling (“Company Blues”). The songs, albeit less narrative-based, are just as memorable as the melancholy dirges of the band’s sophomore release. Whippoorwill‘s flawless mixture of infectious rhythms and down-tempo ballads highlights Chatham County Line’s impressive range. With its strummed banjo and swinging tempo, “Day I Die” is reminiscent of an early 20th-century minstrel tune, and “By the Riverside” is the perfect soundtrack to a lackadaisical Samuel Clemens lifestyle: “Got some fishing line and a hickory limb/ sat there thinking about Huck and Jim.”


    The once-thought-to-be-extinct four-part harmony is performed masterfully throughout the album, and the band treads delicately around farcical barbershop-quartet territory. Wilson’s bygone lyrics coalesce artfully with the band’s antique arrangements, and steam engines, chain gangs and the Confederacy all make an appearance. And Holt’s instrumental go ’round “Savoy Special” gives Flatt & Scruggs’ legendary “Foggy Mountain Breakdown” a run for its money.


    I’ve seen Chatham County Line live several times, and one odd emotion crops up in me during their shows: anger. It’s not that the performances are underwhelming — just the opposite is true — or that the crowd is indifferent. I get angry because Wilson inevitably mentions e-mail, CDs, or some current event. And that’s when the innocent 1940s world I have been savoring comes crashing down. I beg of him: Can’t we, if only for the hour so he performs, pretend all the trappings of modern life have not yet been invented? I want to revel in my earnestness, believing all I need is Chatham County Line, a companion for a tussle in the hay, and a pie to snatch from a windowsill.


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