Generally, there are two types of bluegrass bands in the world. There are the traditional pickers, the strict adherents to the Bill Monroe School of high and lonesome balladry. Then there is the New Grass School, bands that take a Jerry Garcia approach to the genre, exploring, improvising and jamming their way through original arrangements and themes.
Chatham County Line is certainly a bluegrass band with a traditional sound, complete with 7th chords and lonesome tenor moans. But CCL challenges you to call them traditional. All of the elements are there: The instruments, the speed, the unmistakable sound, but the Old School label is somewhat uncomfortable. Chatham County Line's sound is somewhere just a step over from the traditional, but far from the experimental brand of bluegrass that is more popular in the western part of the country.
The four members of CCL gathered around their microphone this past Thursday at Barley's Taproom in Knoxville and put on an astute two-set performance for a few dozen willing fans. The band has been toughing it out and traveling the country and Europe (they're huge in Norway) for the past few years slowly collecting fans at every stop. I first heard them a couple of years ago and had been eagerly looking forward to their return ever since. They didn't disappoint last night. It was one of the best bluegrass shows I've seen in a few years.
CCL's latest record, Speed of the Whippoorwill, is the band's latest showcase of its slight deviation from the traditional. What is first evident is the unique tone of lead singer Dave Mason's vocals. Mason possesses the typical moaning bluegrass tenor, but his is more gentle, his silky delivery allowing him to further explore and present the depths of human emotion than say a McCoury or Skaggs.
Further separating the band is Mason's lyrical work. As chief-songwriter for CCL, Mason delves into thought-provoking themes with a mature knack for placing effective lines in the music, and has the perfect voice to deliver them.
Thursday night CCL played a heart-wrenching rendition of an as-yet-unrecorded song that recounts the civil rights struggles of 1960's Alabama. The song not only delivered a punch to the audience, but also displayed the thoughtful nature of the subject matter. After the show Mason described what inspired the song, "I was in Birmingham and saw the site where they blew up the churches and just stood there and cried and thought about how wrong it all was." From that came the most powerful song of the night.
Chatham County Line is a fun concert. It's easy to see that the four members of CCL are enjoying themselves as they grin to one another with each lead, run and solo. CCL is seemingly constantly on the road - about 120 dates a year according to Mason - so catch them at your local venue or festival. Of course, you could catch them on one of their frequent jaunts to Norway; it'd almost be worth it.