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Goin' Old School 

Chatham County Line lures bluegrass listeners with "time-machine" songs

Picture a family huddled around an old Victrola or Philco, a full day in the fields and a hot meal behind them. They're listening to WBT broadcast new sensations Bill Monroe and his Blue Grass Boys, who are crowded around a single studio mike belting out "Kentucky Waltz" or "New Muleskinner Blues."

If it seems like a time capsule, it doesn't have to be. The four members of Raleigh's Chatham County Line revive the tradition every time they play a gig (as they will Saturday at The Evening Muse). Choreo-graphing their original and traditional songs around a single microphone like some four-headed bluegrass hydra, the all-acoustic band attribute their popularity to an unflinching belief in the music tradition they're helping keep alive.

"I feel like it's part of me, even though I wasn't exposed to it growing up," says Dave Wilson, 29, the group's guitarist and main singer, who grew up in Charlotte and attended Myers Park High. "Once I did hear this style of music it touched me in a way that nothing ever had -- it seems more real to me."

Wilson and Greg Readling, Chatham County's acoustic bass player, were (and still are) members of the country-rock ensemble Stillhouse, when the band took a sharper turn toward the rock, and away from the country, about four years ago. Wilson sought an outlet for the more countrified numbers he was writing and, combined with their love for the bluegrass pioneers (Monroe, Earl Scruggs) and folk revivalists like John Hartford and the Kentucky Colonels, Chatham County Line was born. So what began, in essence, as a side-project, has evolved into a full-time job (at least for Wilson, who does the booking, PR, and merchandise).

"My credit card companies love me," Wilson jokes.

But the side project turned out not to be a joke at all. Still, Wilson and Co. were initially somewhat surprised by all the attention.

"We just started playing, having a good time with it, and weren't too concerned with making an impression on anybody or going anywhere with it," Wilson says.

But when fellow Triangle native and producer Chris Stamey (dBs, the Sneakers) caught a show, he told the band he wanted to record them and helped land them a deal with Bonfire Records. The result, the self-titled debut, received a 4-star review from All Music Guide, whose Zac Johnson wrote:

"The band specializes in purely honest and irony-free honky tonk bluegrass, earnestly sung and expertly picked as if "marketing strategies" and "the 18-24 demographic" never existed. In fact, if the sound quality weren't so terrific, it would be easy to convince any of the O Brother, Where Art Thou neophytes that this in fact is a lost recording of Jimmy Martin jamming with the Osborne Brothers."

Chatham County Line's sound has struck a chord across the board, but especially with traditionalists. Playing in sit-down theaters attracts an older audience who can enjoy the intricacy of the band's songs without battling cigarette smoke, bar talkers and/or drunken fools hooting for "Rocky Top," what Wilson calls the "Freebird" of bluegrass.

"In a quiet theater setting, these people are here to hear the songs, the songwriting, and the words," Wilson says. "We have some fans that are true purists and they seem to support us more than anybody because we are trying to do something that holds onto the past."

In addition, the band's one-mic set-up is more conducive to an attentive audience (even though, truth be told, two smaller mics come into play as well, one placed lower on the single mic stand and another in the bass). But that's not to say Chatham County Line doesn't have younger fans, too, or can't draw in a bar or club setting.

"We play the same show in the different venues, but we approach the stage differently, with a different attitude," Wilson says. "I like playing the bars because you get a more feverish reaction from the crowd...in a bar, the people are there to have a good time, and we're just part of that good time."

Seeing is believing. When the four members of Chatham County Line (including Chandler Holt on banjo and John Teer on fiddle and mandolin) array themselves around the primary mic and count down into one of their originals, it's easy to time-warp back to a day when, for instance, the acoustic guitar played second fiddle in bluegrass to the banjo, due to the latter's naturally louder sound.

And that's where the one-mic dynamics come in. When the band was starting out, they would record themselves and then go back and listen and adjust where they stood based on those tapes -- a process that Wilson says took up to a year to perfect. Another reason the band has resisted being mic-ed separately is because the current set-up is quite demanding, and they love a challenge.

"It's completely unforgiving -- you can't hide anywhere," Wilson says. "You are always on. You can't whisper, or laugh, or burp, whatever, without it being translated over to the audience. Which is something I really like because it's your job to go up there and play and you can't hide behind a volume knob."

But while the band certainly sounds old school, discerning bluegrass listeners can tell a difference, largely, Wilson says, through the melody and chord structure. But the hard-core traditionalists stick by the band because, unlike the bastardized cousin New Grass, Chatham County Line are remaining true to the spirit of the original music. Wilson cites as inspiration the Appalachian (by way of LA) sound of Gillian Welch, as well as her habit of "quoting" preceding artists -- a long-standing tradition in folk music.

"I can't deny the fact that I've listened to modern music and chord structures, whether it's rock & roll, or the Faces, or modern country, whatever I've been listening to -- I can't go back in time and pretend all I've listened to is Robert Johnson or something," Wilson says. "But I try to write songs in that vein, kind of time-machine songs, where I feel like this is a song that could have been written back then."

And despite any modern touches, that's the appeal -- a time-honored tradition acting like a siren call to four guys who could just as easily have formed yet another rock band. It also reminds one of another era, when the music had more of a communal spirit.

"That's another reason we stick with the one-microphone style and we don't plug our instruments in," Wilson says. "Because it's not about being loud and who can take the best solo. People just enjoy seeing the camaraderie on stage of us working as a unit."

Chatham County Line plays The Evening Muse with Old School Freight Train Saturday on the early bill; the Kevin Gordon Band and Ware River Club (acoustic duo) play the late show

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