With traditional string band instrumentation, bluegrass band Chatham County Line, based in Raleigh, North Carolina, performs wearing suits and ties.
You can see them Friday, Jan. 5, at the Newberry Opera House.
The band talked to the News & Observer’s David Menconi last fall about their most recent album, “Autumn,” and why they dress up for shows.
Chatham County Line is a band with international appeal, and they’ve got the Norwegian platinum records to prove it. But the Raleigh, North Carolina, bluegrass band has always been proudly local.
“One of the sweetest things about this band is it’s so simple,” said frontman and guitarist Dave Wilson. “I wouldn’t call it ‘easy,’ but our format and staging are very simple, without a lot of crew or some giant business to support. It’s like a store where I’d want to shop. I like going to Burke Brothers Hardware (a family-owned and operated store in Raleigh) a lot more than Lowe’s, and that’s how I feel about this band: a locally owned and operated small-capital business providing a service people like and appreciate. It wouldn’t work if we tried to make it bigger than it could be.”
Despite the modest intentions, Chatham County Line has built itself up to be one of the Triangle’s more durably popular musical exports. Ostensibly an old-school bluegrass quartet, they’re more like a pop band with bluegrass instrumentation; all four members started out playing in rock bands, and their set lists generally include bluegrass versions of rock chestnuts from the likes of Traveling Wilburys or Rockpile.
Onstage and in conversation, they come across as pretty lighthearted. But their original songs tend to be less than merry affairs, including the 11 tracks on their seventh and newest studio album, “Autumn” (Yep Roc Records), released in September 2016.
Banjo player Chandler Holt, who contributed the relatively upbeat love song “If I Had My Way,” refers to the “songwriting conundrum of Chatham County Line,” which involves juggling different styles as well as emotions.
“Chatham County Line really is the hardest band in the world to write for because it can’t be too much of a straight-up bluegrass thing,” Holt said. “And my tunes aren’t tongue-in-cheek, but they’re not as serious as what Dave writes because he brings in enough of that.”
Not that Wilson, Chatham County Line’s primary songwriter as well as producer of the last three albums, necessarily agrees.
“I don’t know; in my mind, this one actually is a little lighter in tone,” Wilson said of the new album. “But serious is just how I write. That’s my jam, and it’s hard to write happy songs. I’ve definitely tried. You can’t write a happy song in a minor key, though. And since I’m a control freak, I’ve been taking over the technical aspects as well. In my experience, producing means you wrangle troops, organize time, do a lot of file management in this digital-recording world and make final decisions about mixing. There are so many choices, it almost seems impossible to make the right decision.
“Songs and records are just moments you capture,” he adds. “The way I look at songs, they’re like architecture to me. I might like one for the structure, the way the chords interface versus what a standard listener might hear. Like this album’s ‘Jackie Boy,’ which started out as a super-long and super-terrible song about a dog. I’d try to revisit it, and it got no better, until one day it all clicked into place.”
Expect the band to show up in their trademark sharp-suit finery.
“We respect the crowd, so that’s why we dress up and do the showman thing rather than come out in overalls and have hay bales,” said Teer. “So we dress nice and present that way out of respect for the audience. Unless it’s hot as hell, like it was at Dix.”
A few months before, in July, the band had ditched the suits to play the Destination Dix Festival in Raleigh, when temperatures climbed into the 90s.
“But, look good, play good.”
If you go
Chatham County Line
WHEN: 8 p.m. Friday, Jan. 5.
WHERE: Newberry Opera House, 1201 McKibben St., Newberry.
TICKETS: $25 to $35