“It’s kind of happy sad,” says Chatham County Line guitarist and singer Dave Wilson, looking back on a tumultuous year for the Raleigh-based Americana combo. After a three-year span with no new album, the band followed 2016’s reflective yet hopeful Autumn with two new change-of-pace projects in 2019.
On the March release Sharing the Covers, the four-piece string band paid tribute to the classic folk, country and rock tunes that have inspired them. Then Winter Songs, the group’s collaboration with Norwegian singer-songwriter Jonas Fjeld and folk legend Judy Collins, dropped in November. But by the time tracks were recorded with Fjeld, Collins and pianist Russell Walden at Asheville’s Echo Mountain Studio, CCL was no longer a foursome. After 20 years, banjo player Chandler Holt departed the fold.
“Chandler had moved to Colorado and it became harder on him to travel and do shows.” Wilson says, praising his friend for sticking it out for two decades.
In August, Holt permanently traded staying in seedy hotel rooms for spending time with family.
“We discussed it among the band,” Wilson explains, “and we told him to follow his heart.”
Wilson also stresses that Holt’s banjo has not completely left CCL’s sound — at least not yet. His playing will appear on some of the new material the band has recorded for an as-yet-untitled album slated for release in May.
Wilson, mandolinist/fiddler John Teer and bassist/keyboardist/pedal steel player Greg Readling used the personnel change as an opportunity to reconnect with their roots. The foursome started back in 1999 as rock ‘n’ roll kids turned bluegrass guerillas, and their next step embraces that — instead of recruiting a new banjo player, the group, all of whom trade off on vocals, started playing with a rotating cadre of drummers. It’s made their shows “a little more upbeat with a backbeat,” Wilson zThe band’s rock roots are represented by the roster of the artists they pay tribute to on Sharing the Covers, its eighth studio album. The playlist includes Wilco, Tom Petty, John Lennon, and The Rolling Stones.
CCL has always mixed covers into its live shows. The album is a natural extension of that.
“People would come up after a show and ask where they could find the [cover] songs,” Wilson offers. “We got tired of telling them to search them out on YouTube.”
When the band started pre-production for its upcoming album of original material at Durham’s Overdub Lane Studios — the same facility where it recorded its first self-titled album in 2003 — it started playing Wilco’s “I Got You (At the End of the Century)” to loosen up and have fun. Listening to the playback, Wilson, Teer and Readling loved the spontaneity of the session. CCL started playing more covers, and the result is a 13-track collection where each song crackles with the energy of live-in-the studio playing.
Fellow North Carolinian Del Reeves’ “Girl on the Billboard” even boasts an Elvis at Sun Studios vibe. Wilson and Teer slowed down their vocals on the Louvin Brothers’ “My Baby’s Gone,” a tune they tackled because they wanted to emulate the bone-deep brotherly harmonies exemplified by the Louvins. Holt shines on a rollicking surf banjo ramble through the Ventures’ “Walk Don’t Run,” but the band’s cover of John Lennon’s “Watching the Wheels” holds a special place in Wilson’s heart. He feels the song finds Lennon going through a life phase similar to CCL’s when it recorded the tune.
“You’re 15 years or so along in your career,” Wilson says. “You’re getting a little older and you’re not that rapscallion that you used to be.”
It’s tempting to credit the band’s maturity for prompting the wintry collaboration with Fjeld and Collins, but Wilson says the project arose partly due to chance. Fjeld and Collins had been trying to record together for years, and in the meantime, CCL had established a warm working relationship with Fjeld. The popular Norwegian artist brought CCL over to his homeland for a concert that was recorded for the 2007 live album Amerikabesøk, which means “visitors from America.” Norwegian tours and two other collaborations with Fjeld followed, Brother of Song in 2009 and Western Harmonies in 2013. Both albums cracked the Norwegian Top 10.
When the timing finally worked out for Fjeld and Collins’ long planned project, Fjeld contacted CCL. The group immediately agreed to participate. A November 2018 meeting and jam session in Raleigh between Fjeld, Collins and CCL determined there was enough chemistry to proceed, and everyone convened in Asheville the following February to track the material. Among covers of Joni Mitchell’s “The River” and Jimmy Webb’s “Highwayman,” plus songs from Collins’ back catalog like “The Blizzard,” are a pair of songs co-written by Wilson. He says he was ecstatic to have the revered 80-year-old artist sing his lyrics.
“As a songwriter there’s no higher compliment,” Wilson gushes, calling Collins “a magical artist with a magical voice.”
The CCL guitarist came away impressed with her stamina and work ethic.
“She’s still kicking ass,” he says. “She plays 150 shows a year [and] puts us to shame.”
CCL will tour Norway with Fjeld and Collins in February.
In the aftermath of one of the most eventful years in his band’s history, Wilson hopes CCL’s music brings listeners a sense of peace and purpose in a confused world.
“Continuing into 2020,” he says, “we hope to be a source of merriment for as long as we’re around.”
What: Chatham County Line
Where: The White Mule, 711 Saluda Ave.
When: Friday, Jan. 17, 9 p.m.
Price: $20 ($15 advance)
More: 803-708-5908, facebook.com/whitemulemusic