There's something sweet and straightforward about Chatham County Line. It's in both the timeless burbling bluegrass and the humble sincerity of Dave Wilson's songs.
"When I look in your eyes, I hear the crowd start to cheer," he sings in a song addressed to a newly ex-girlfriend. "I guess I'm out of the running, thanks for your applause."
"Out of the Running" comes from the Raleigh, N.C., band's most recent album, Wildwood, its fifth since forming in 1999. It's their most adventurous from a sonic perspective, and may also be their most accessible to those not necessarily predisposed to bluegrass.
"It's a step away from where Chatham County Line started, but it's a step back towards where Greg [Reading] and I started years ago, with him playing pedal steel and writing country-influenced tunes, trying to be a North Carolina son of Gram Parsons," Wilson says.
Wildwood also marks the first appearance of a drummer on a Chatham County Line album, thanks to the inclusion of Zeke Hutchins, an old friend of theirs from Wilson and Reading's pre-CCL band Stillhouse.
Hutchins brings a sturdy backbeat to the jangly weekend lovers' ode, "Saturdays & Sundays" and the tender, harmony-rich, Band-inflected amble of "Crop Comes In." He's only on a handful of tracks, but they help broaden the album's tone, and it doesn't hurt that they're a couple of the finest songs on the album. Wilson calls Hutchins "family" and describes his participation as "natural as breathing for us."
The album also found the band traveling to Asheville to record itself without relying on a producer. The money saved went into more time in a nicer studio, resulting in the warmest, prettiest-sounding album of their career. Plus, there was lots of new studio equipment to play with.
"We were just really excited being able to use all those cool toys that God intended for musicians to use," says Wilson. "So that was definitely part of the approach to the record."
Now reaching the tail end of Wildwood's support cycle, the group has been finishing work on a live DVD and a live album, which will be out later this year. They've also continued to practice weekly, working up the songs for an album they expect to record later this year.
Wilson expects they'll return to the all-acoustic, drums-free situation, though that's no promise. "Whatever we have to do to service that story and melody is what we're going to do," he says.
After more than a decade, Wilson and his bandmates are thrilled they've been able to make music for a living, while becoming a folk festival favorite along the way. The frontman says he's also enjoyed watching the band's audience change over the past 13 years.
"It used to be a bunch of gray hairs and old people who just came out because they liked bluegrass and we were the fair-haired young men," recalls Wilson. "Now as we've grown gray, it seems like the younger kids are coming out. It's the fault of bands like the Avetts and Mumford & Sons. We love to see someone reach a lot of success, because we know a real music fan will dig a little deeper."