North Carolina is a hotbed for great musical talent. From the hard rock of Corrosion of Conformity to the famed drumming of Max Roach, who lived in Pasquotank County with his parents until he was four years old to the pop sounds of Winston-Salem native Ben Folds and so much more, this state is and has been home to some of the greatest musicians and musical acts ever known to audiences. Even the likes of Nina Simone, Ryan Adams, and Fred Durst (yes, Fred Durst. He started life in Cheryville, NC and eventually moved with his family to Gastonia, where he graduated high school before joining the Navy and then moving to Jacksonville, FL). They are just some of the many big names that have connections to The Old North State. Another big name from North Carolina is none other than Chatham County Line. The Raleigh-based bluegrass band has released eight studio recordings, earned multiple awards and legions of fans the world over. The band continued its success last month when it released its ninth full-length studio recording Strange Fascination. The nine-song record is deserving of its own awards, as well as the honor of being placed on any critic’s list of the year’s top new Bluegrass Albums list and overall albums list. The 34-minute record is that impressive. Its musical arrangements and lyrical themes come together to fully support the noted statements, as is exhibited in part through the song ‘Free Again.’ ‘Station to Station,’ which comes early in the album’s run, is another key addition to the album. It will be addressed a little later. ‘Guitar (For Guy Clark)’ is yet another example of how this record’s musical and lyrical content works together to make this subtle presentation such a powerful work in whole. When it is considered along with the other songs noted here and the rest of the album’s works, the record in whole becomes a presentation that, again, deserves to be among this year’s top new bluegrass records and best new albums overall.
Chatham County Line’s latest full-length studio recording – its ninth so far – is a work that from beginning to end, is extremely quiet and reserved. Yet it’s that very reservation that makes the album in whole so powerful and moving. That it is able to move audiences without trying is a bold statement from the band. It proves that even in the world of bluegrass, a record doesn’t have to have high energy to be enjoyable. It proves that sometimes, the best songs are the soft ones. ‘Free Again,’ which comes just ahead of the album’s midway point, is just one of the songs that serves to support the noted statement. That is proven in part through the song’s musical arrangement. The use of the guitars, drums and harmonica gives the song less a bluegrass vibe than a sound more akin to the realms of folks and Americana. Front man Dave Wilson’s vocals even make it easy to confuse him with the late great Tom Petty. The mid-tempo approach to the song keeps the arrangement just energy that it will keep listeners engaged. That arrangement builds a solid foundation for the song, on which the song’s lyrics build.
Wilson sings in the song’s lead verse, “Free/Free again/From the chains that brought me to this land/Free/Free at last/Long dark shadows of the past/This is for the millions who died/No chance to be free/This is for the blood of the fallen/Who fought so hard for liberty.” He continues in the song’s second verse, “This is for the boys…Rivets in the line of steel/Canned away the dreams/On a narrow keel/An ocean of dreams/A land to behold/To call from the mountains/A piece of home.” Again, this is such a subtle statement, but it is so strong in its subtlety. This is a tribute of sorts to the people who made American and who made America great. It points out that they came from so many different backgrounds in so few words. The melancholy nature of the song’s arrangement does well to help translate that message and the feeling that goes with the message. There is no doubt that this will fully engage and entertain audiences and prove to be one audiences’ favorite additions to the album. It is just one of the songs that is certain to be a fan favorite. ‘Station to Station,’ which comes early in the album’s run, is another surefire hit for the band this time out.
‘Station to Station’ incorporates a little bit more of a bluegrass element than does ‘Free Again’ in its arrangement. There is a fiddle line featured in the arrangement, but its use is still limited. The arrangement here is founded in its piano and drums. The addition of Wilson’s vocals to the mix adds more of that Americana feel to the arrangement. The overall vibe of this song does well in accompanying the song’s lyrical content, which apparently focuses on someone living the railroad life. What is more Americana than that?
Wilson sings in the song’s lead verse, “Riding this train station to station/Bought my ticket with no hesitation/Silver steam is better than gold/Oh, mama, I was born to roll/Never grew up/Even though I tried/Ain’t got nothin’ left but my pride/As a boy you know/I played with trains/Well that boy still drives this man.’ He continues in the song’s second verse, “Stay upright even when I’m stumbling/Count my money when dice come tumbling/Thrown a punch/You know I took a few/You ain’t nothing without something to prove.” So this is not just about living the rail life, but just a song about life; a song about someone who has come up living the hard life, and that included riding the rails from town to town, getting into fights, etc. The picture painted by these lyrics is so rich and vivid. It’s so easy to visualize this story in one’s head, and that in itself adds to the song’s enjoyment. It’s just a great American story (and song) and just one more example of what makes Strange Fascination such a wonderful new offering from Chatham County Line. ‘Guitar (For Guy Clark)’ is yet another important entry in this record.
‘Guitar (For Guy Clark)’ features a musical arrangement that is honestly, beautiful in its simplicity. It finds Wilson singing along with a single guitar line, a pair of brushes against a snare drum an even more subtle separate piano and bass line. Each line is so expertly balanced with the others, that it forces audiences to listen. The result is a song whose arrangement lends itself to comparisons to some of Bob Dylan’s best works. When the gentle approach to the song’s musical approach is taken into consideration with the song’s lyrical content, the whole of the song becomes even more moving.
Wilson sings in the song’s lead verse, “Just an old guitar hanging in the window of five and dime/And I knew we’d be together the rest of time/So I ran home and begged down on my knees/For my folks to set it free/there’s a feeling in this world I can’t describe…When that guitar hit my hand/It was fine/I could understand/Runnin’ around/ Thick as thieves/It’s the story of that old guitar and me…” He continues in the song’s second verse, “I hope this old guitar remembers that song/the one that kept me holding on…My old friend/I won’t let you down/Think abck now to those younger days/=…doing just what I said I’d do/Someday I will turn to dust/Sure as these old strings turn to rust/And I trust my band will bring/Another set of hands/To make this old girl sing.” Yet again, here audiences get a simple, but so powerful song in these lyrics. They get a story of a man recollecting the joy that a single guitar brought him for so many years, and the impact that it had on his life. He adds near the song’s end that when his time comes, he hopes someone else will be brought in to keep playing the guitar and carry on where he left off. It is just such a happy tearjerker that will move listeners. Once more, when the song’s musical arrangement is considered along with these deeply moving lyrics, the whole of the song becomes its own powerful entry, and yet another example of why this album stands out among its current bluegrass/folk/Americana counterparts and the rest of the year’s best overall. When it is considered along with the other songs addressed here and the rest of the album’s works, the end result is a work that impresses so fully with its simple approach. It is a work that audiences will enjoy, whether they be fans of bluegrass, Americana or folk.
Chatham County Line’s latest album Strange Fascination is a work that will fascinate audiences of so many musical tastes. That is proven from the record’s opening to its end through the album’s musical arrangements and its deep and moving lyrical content. All three of the songs addressed here prove that to be wholly true. When they are considered alongside the rest of the album’s works, the album in whole proves itself to be another album that could be another award winner for Chatham County Line. More information on the album is available online along with all of Chatham County Line’s latest news and more at:
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