Bluegrass isn't an especially angsty medium, at least not in its traditional form; the music is usually too speedy and upbeat to communicate an inward gaze into the abyss, and while a blue mood sometimes informs the songs, the sadness invariably sounds organic, rooted in tragic circumstances rather than a dark night of the soul. Chatham County Line are not a traditional bluegrass quartet, even though they often sound like one, and their outlook is what sets them apart as much as their music. This is particularly evident on their sixth studio album, Tightrope, where inward-gazing tunes like "Final Reward" find them stretching the thematic and musical boundaries of the bluegrass genre; while the lyrics deal with the legacy of the Civil War, the narrative is stylized and poetic in a way the average old-time tune is not, and the arrangement, with piano, steel guitar, and brass added to the usual guitars, banjo, mandolin, and fiddle, lends the song a potent atmospheric tone that's thoughtful and striking, reinforced by the echoey production.
In business terms, Chatham County Line would be considered a loss leader. Lacking the punk credentials and crossover appeal of fellow bluegrass revivalists Old Crow Medicine Show, the Raleigh, North Carolina act has held true to its roots, writing its own songs steeped in American lore. With acts like Mumford & Sons and offshoots such as the Lumineers charting off of variations of the sound Chatham County Line helped to rekindle, the foursome have yet to reap their just rewards.
Nearly 20 years and two bands into their collaboration, Chatham County Line have made the dreaded "mature" album. "We wanted every song to make the future greatest hits," says guitarist and lead singer Dave Wilson of their process. It shows — and that's the problem. This four-piece bluegrass outfit sounds positively shagged out on their sixth studio album.
After seven albums and close to two decades of consistent music making, you’d think Chatham County Line would be at least a bit better known. As it is, they linger on the fringes of wider recognition, a consistently credible outfit that’s yet to make a major inroad into the broader bluegrass community. That’s a shame really, because Chatham County Line is much more than your average banjo-playing, fiddle-fueled combo.