When Dave Wilson first listened to the record “Train a Comin’” by Steve Earle, he never expected its bluegrass influence would lead him to where he is today: successfully promoting Chatham County Line’s seventh album, “Tightrope.” The small, friendly get-togethers the band once endured, playing tunes out of old, classic songbooks, has turned into something much larger. Chatham County Line tours arenas across the States and overseas. This weekend Motorco Music and 98.3 The Penguin will bring the Raleigh-based Americana band back to Wilmington to play Greenfield Lake Amphitheater on Friday, September 26 in support of “Tightrope”—which premiered at number three on the Billboard charts in its first week of release in May.
Across seven records—from 2003’s self-titled release on Bonfire Records through the six albums they’ve released on Yep Roc Records since—CCL doesn’t really follow a formula in music production. In fact, they only focus on the goal to work and write songs together, always. Having banded in 1999 while in their 20s, it’s a natural connection fostered by the fact they’ve essentially grown up together. Today, Dave Wilson (guitar and harmonica), Chandler Holt (banjo and guitar), John Teer (mandolin and fiddle), and Greg Readling (bass, piano and pedal-steel) find personal maturity has led them to infiltrate life experiences into their music.
“We’ve been at this for over a decade,” Wilson says, “and people are getting older. People are married, and Chandler just had a baby boy. The maturity was more of a reference to us personally as human beings.”
This newfound sophistication can be heard on 2013’s “Western Harmonies.” They collaborated with Norwegian songwriter Jonas Fjeld and even embarked on a three-week tour around Norway with Fjeld in support of the album. It topped the charts, so when the band returned to Durham, they headed back to Sound Pure Studios, where they first worked with Fjeld. “Tightrope” was created solely by the band—no music producer, no limited budget.
“Being on our own in the studio has been a very liberating process that lets us experiment much more than we used to,” Wilson says. “We can take a song, deconstruct it and play it in different ways.”
Though they explored autonomously, they still worked in lyrics and melodies that complemented each other. The title track, “Tightrope,” was influenced by an instrumental that Holt wrote on his banjo. The melody reminded Wilson of a tightrope walker by the way the banjo moved and reverbed. This inspiration left Wilson determined to create lyrics that would deliver the same mind set for listeners just as the melody had impacted him.
In light of their release, CCL will be returning overseas on a nine-day tour around Europe with Chapel Hill-based act Mandolin Orange this November. The two will be making appearances in Belgium, the Netherlands, Norway and the United Kingdom. According to Wilson, people overseas have a real wealth of knowledge for this style of music. Considering bluegrass stems from the Celtic and Irish folk traditions—along with Scottish-fiddle music and banjo from Africa—it felt right for them to return to the mainlands from which it all originated. Though Wilson believes it’s a perk to handle money that looks different from his own currency, he also likes taking time to be a tourist. “We enjoy the sights,” he confirms, “and when we can, [we enjoy] staying with locals to get the feel of a city just as much as the view.”
CCL and Mandolin Orange have ties to the same record label, Yep Roc, and Mandolin Orange manages to attract a large fanbase in Europe. The pairing felt organic. “Mandolin Orange has been a Triangle staple for years and we’ve always loved their sound,” Wilson says.
Before trekking across the pond, CCL will return to southeastern NC this weekend. Though they don’t believe in creating a set list before their shows, the impromptu energy and shared-mic performances infuse a heft of verve. In essence, this act enjoys building their performances around what’s going on in the moment. Fans can expect to hear a little bit of everything from their catalog—a mixture of old and new hits, including some from Wilson’s personal favorite, “Sight and Sound” (Yep Roc, 2012).
“Y’all have been gracious enough to put [the artwork from ‘Sight and Sound’] on your cover the last two Decembers,” Wilson interjects, referencing the Electric Holiday Tour CCL do annually with other Americana stalwarts like Jay Brown, Zeke Hutchins and Johnny Irion. Yearly, it makes its way to a Wilmington stage. “[The picture] shows us live, doing that thing we do, and tells the audience what they are about to experience.”
That experience includes a quartet of mavericks owning their string instruments and harmonizing lip to lip around their mic, decked out in suits and picking ‘til their hearts’ content. Opening for them will be songwriter Shannon Whitworth and her partner Barrett Smith in support of their most recent collaborations, “High Tide” and “Bring It on Home.” CCL first came in touch with Whitworth at a festival they played together with the Biscuit Burners—Whitworth’s band before she moved on to her solo career.
“We knew she had an amazing voice,” Wilson says, “and having just seen her…at the Mountain Song Festival, we can tell you that she puts on an amazing show.”
Fans may be treated to an impromptu musical betrothal between the two acts as well. “We’re really looking forward to the Wilmington show,” Wilson says. “We have songs that people respond to, definitely. We’ve had songs used at every sort of get-together you can imagine and just hope that we can keep creating music that people respond to for the rest of our years.”
Chatham County Line
Fri., September 26, 7 p.m.
Greenfield Lake Amphitheater
1941 Amphitheater Dr.