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Chatham Co. Line, 25 Years On, Shifts Gears, Shouting “Hiyo”

York Wilson

If you’re of a certain age, it’s likely that when you read the title of Chatham County Line’s new album Hiyo, you’ll hear it in the voice of Ed McMahon, who used to punctuate Johnny Carson’s edgier jokes on the Tonight Show with his trademark exclamation. Dave Wilson and John Teer, founding members of the band, agree in a Zoom interview that McMahon was indeed one inspiration for the title, but not the only one.

“It’s just a phrase that kind of means different things at different times,” says Wilson. “One of them is associated with the track ‘Lone Ranger’ on the album with his ‘Hi-yo Silver,’ and then there's the Ed McMahon, (or) like you see somebody with a really new haircut or something and you haven't seen them in a while. That's the way we felt about this album.”

Teer agrees. “It is kind of like a new hello or reintroduction to the band,” he says. “But it's not smacking you in the face.”

Chatham County Line, who play WMOT’s Roots On The Rivers festival this Saturday at 4:15, formed at the dawn of the 21st century in Raleigh, NC, helping to usher in a new wave of bluegrass music, alongside the Steep Canyon Rangers and Michael Cleveland, in a growth era for the genre. They signed on early to the state’s important indie label Yep Roc Records where they’ve released ten albums. But unless someone’s all-in for a single style and tradition of music, doing the same thing for 25 years isn’t natural or expected. By 2010 CCL were deploying their acoustic stringed instruments and voices in fresh and exploratory ways while still performing around a single microphone in the old school style. When banjo player Chandler Holt retired from the band during the 2020 shutdown, the guys embraced a new configuration on stage that includes pedal steel and drums, along with a new freedom in the studio.

Thus 2020’s Strange Fascination marked a makeover of the CCL esthetic. It’s an album I reviewed here as “a simple yet curiously seductive world of song and sound that shows new layers with repeated listening.” And Hiyo, released in late January of this year, stretches even farther. It opens with Wilson’s clean, chiming electric guitar setting a beat-less atmosphere with Teer’s mandolin before tapping into a road-tripping beat and woozy vocals. “Magic,” one of my favorites, just goes for it with a twiddling synthesizer and psych-reverb-drenched harmonies that conjure My Morning Jacket.

The aforementioned “Lone Ranger” is a drifting and spectral song about shedding the naivety of youth and coming of age. “Under The Willow Tree” is a catchy guitar-forward instrumental reminding us that they’ll always be a string band from Carolina at some level. They cover the Hank Cochran country classic “She’s Got You” with a moody mist and lovely voices. It’s all pretty gorgeous.

Coaxing this musical exploration along was a new producer in CCL’s story named Rachael Moore. She’s a Nashville-based engineer who over a decade has come through Blackbird’s recording academy, a tutelage with Jacquire King, a staff gig at Sound Emporium and for the past few years a right hand relationship with T Bone Burnett. They met in the most fascinating circumstances, Chatham County Line’s first foray into film and TV. Teer and Wilson got to play 1960s A-Team studio musicians from Nashville on the set of the Showtime series George & Tammy, in which Michael Shannon and Jessica Chastain play tempestuous and brilliant country super couple George Jones and Tammy Wynette.

“It was an adventure,” says Wilson. “We got to sit in a recreated Quonset Hut, the classic (Owen) Bradley studio. And we sat there for eight days, pretending to play these classic songs.” Meanwhile, they got to watch Shannon and Chastain act out these intense characters, even as they sang live vocals to pre-recorded tracks there on the set in Wilmington, NC. “Having a front row seat to watching these incredible actors perform over and over the scenes, it was mind blowing, to see that firsthand,” Teer recalls.

Amid the camaraderie they got close to Moore, who was tracking and mixing the performances for Burnett, the series music supervisor. As a co-producer on Hiyo, working at Echo Mountain studio in Asheville, NC, she gave the band some incentive and freedom to reach for new ideas, including more guest contributions than they’d worked with in the past, including singer Maya de Vitry, fiddler John Mailander and drummer Jamie Dick.

The remaking of CCL plays out on stage as much as it has in the studio, as you’ll see this Saturday. Greg Readling, a member since day one, plays less bass and more pedal steel guitar. Wilson covers a lot of the low end with some special tunings and electronics on his electric guitar. Teer plays fiddle and mandolin, sometimes with nice electronic effects. And the groove is held down these days by drummer Darren Jessee, an NC legend who co-founded Ben Folds Five.

The boys had to relearn and rearrange their core material to truly usher in the new CCL, and Teer says it’s been fun for the band and well received by longtime fans: “I think people are soaking it in,” he told WMOT. “It's been great to get out there and put the Hiyo sound out and get the feedback. It's been overwhelmingly positive, and people are embracing it.”

Craig Havighurst is WMOT's editorial director and host of The String, a weekly interview show airing Mondays at 8 pm, repeating Sundays at 7 am. He also co-hosts The Old Fashioned on Saturdays at 9 am and Tuesdays at 8 pm. Threads and Instagram: @chavighurst. Email: craig@wmot.org