Del McCoury was approaching his 60th birthday in the late 1990s, but he and his family-anchored Del McCoury Band were as hot as an Airstream camper at a July festival. In those years, the lonesome voiced, pompadoured gentleman from Pennsylvania probably inspired more new young bluegrass bands to form than any other artist. One from Raleigh, NC that’s proven influential and durable in its own way is Chatham County Line.
Guitarist and songwriter Dave Wilson and fiddle/mandolin player John Teer saw McCoury play at the Carolina Theater in nearby Durham, and that was one of the key moments that steered them from playing country rock in various bands toward consolidating into a formal bluegrass quartet, with suits and ties, playing around a single microphone. And the local scene encompassing the university-heavy Triangle (Raleigh, Durham and Chapel Hill) proved most welcoming.
THE STRING #137 W DAVE WILSON AND JOHN TEER
“There was this alt-country thing going on, and you felt like you were part of a movement and something happening,” says Teer in Episode 137 of The String. “Because there was so miuch going on and you could feel it in the air.” He cites Tift Merritt, The Two Dollar Pistols, Six-String Drag and Whiskeytown as among the bands garnering a national following and telling a new musical story from the mid-South. The Steep Canyon Rangers were another McCoury inspired bluegrass band making its way in that scene, with whom CCL enjoyed a friendly rivalry. “We just soaked up all that stuff. You felt like a community of a lot of cool bands and influences. We were all together as a family.”
Of course, one of the things that distinguishes Chatham from some of the other youngsters who picked up banjos and mandolins in that fertile time is that they’re still at it, celebrating 20 years together in 2019. In that year, the group’s founding banjo player Chandler Holt retired with ample warning, opting to stay home with his young family. The band made the album Sharing The Covers, giving the string band treatment to songs by shared band influences, from Beck and Tom Petty to John Hartford. And they consolidated three years of pre-production and songwriting into the album Strange Fascination, which came out in late April of this year on their long-time label Yep Roc Records (also from middle NC).
The anniversary, says Dave Wilson, “was a pretty marked step for us. There was a lot of kismet involved in the changing of the guard. Our founding member Chandler stepping away. It’s almost a return to our roots because before this 20-year jaunt into the bluegrass realm, both (bass player Greg Readling) and I were in a country rock band with drums and John and Chandler were in a country rock band with drums. And that was a big part of how we grew up playing music.”
While a lot of circa 2000 bluegrass bands leaned into their instruments and the jam esthetic, CCL focused on songwriting and band craft. When their second album Route 23 came out in 2005, indie music curator Pitchfork picked up on it, which was rare for string band music at the time. “This is straight bluegrass without a hyphen or a prefix,” they wrote in a strong review. “It has nothing to do with pastiche, a pose, or modern country music. From first note to last, it's obvious these guys have done ample homework.”
And you still hear about homework when the guys talk about the band today. Wilson told me that pre-production for Strange Fascination took upwards of three years before they finally tracked the project. “I find with music especially as you get a little age under your belt, you realize you’re going to get on stage and play some of these songs for a long time into your future. You really want to spend the time making each song the best masterpiece you can make, so that ten years down the road you feel real good presenting that to an audience, and you have the same joy in playing it you did the very first time you played it together.”