The foundations of my musical tastes and world-view were shaped in my home town of Durham, North Carolina, so I’m a softie for bands from what we Tarheels call “The Triangle” (Durham, Raleigh, Chapel Hill), and it’s no surprise that bluegrass music got in my bloodstream. This week, as we open our Spring 2014 Season (yay!) Roots welcomes back a fantastic band that’s become The Triangle’s most notable force in bluegrass and acoustic music since the Red Clay Ramblers decades ago. They’ve surprised and excited me with each successive album, proving they’re as dedicated to a creative journey as they are to the integrity of the tradition that first inspired them.
I’m talking about Chatham County Line, a quartet formed in 1999 when some guys from an electric indie alt-country kind of band got amiably ambushed by some guys determined to play acoustic music. When CCL last visited Roots in 2010, I sat down at length with guitarist Dave Wilson and banjo guy Chandler Holt, the ambushee and ambusher respectively, according to their version of events. They told me their formal style was sealed from the beginning, thanks to their gargantuan respect for a certain bluegrass ensemble that wears suits, sports fabulous hair and works around a single microphone, old-school style.
“Dressing up for the show pays respect to the music,” said Wilson. “If you look at all the great artists through history, they all had the same respect for the crowd to dress the part. And the single mic comes from just seeing the ultimate masculine ballet of the Del McCoury Band.”
But they moved beyond trying to imitate Del and sons and began to find their own modern-day version of bluegrass music, and their tour base grew pretty fast. Asked about their most validating and exciting experience as a band, Holt recalled performing on Jools Holland’s Later show in London in 2008. “We were on the same episode with The Raconteurs and Bon Iver and Nick Cave,” he sais. “Millions of people watch this. It was the equivalent of being on Saturday Night Live over there. That was huge.”
In its early days, Chatham County Line focused on original but traditionally structured bluegrass tunes. Then as album gave way to album, they let go of any self-imposed songwriting rules while keeping the acoustic instrumental core, a framework they feel best supports the tunes they’re writing.
“Bluegrass as a genre is in good hands for sure,” says Dave Wilson. “There are tons of extremely proficient players who will play the hell out of standard tunes. There’s no sense that that’s going to be lost. If it were, I would feel a little bit more of a pull to write more in the genre. But as a band it’s more fun to create a new style of music, just as Bill Monroe created a new style.”
There’s more Tarheel talent coming this Wednesday as well. Mountain songstress Nikki Talley hails from a town I never heard of called Ruffin and lives in the musically exciting Smoky Mountain headquarters of Asheville. She tours with her husband, spinning acoustic guitar, banjo and her silky, expressive voice into songs that can be spare or driving. She collaborated with our own Jim Lauderdale on a rolling dobro-driven powerhouse called “Fugitives” that you can hear at her website. It’s easy to see why she’s on the good side of the good folks at WNCW-FM around where she lives.
From further away – Binghamton, New York on the banks of the Susquehanna River -we’ll enjoy a visit from Driftwood, a co-ed four-piece acoustic band that draws on its members’ histories in rock and roll, jazz, classical and folk music. Claire Byrne is celebrated for her vocals and her zesty fiddle playing. The band picks up on the free pulsing feel that characterizes some of today’s most interesting post-bluegrass music.
And from much closer to home, good friend of the show Dan Keen brings his good-time eclectro-rocking band Dan The Torpedoes! to Roots for the first time. Dan, a music business professor at Belmont University and a friend of emerging Americana talent for years, has helped us line up our great nights of Belmont talent in the past. Now we’ll get to see how his own ensemble, very much a local labor of love, sounds like. We expect fun will be the main software in their underwater guidance system.
So get ready for another season. It’s a Nature Conservancy benefit and with the flowers popping around Middle Tennessee, that will fit just right. It’s real pretty out there. Almost as pretty as North Carolina.