Chatham County Line's roots are deep in bluegrass, and that's clearly not about to change, but after ten years together, the group keeps adding different flavors into the formula with each album, and on their fifth, Wildwood, their songwriting and arrangements find them showing how far they can push the boundaries of the genre while still respecting its forms and traditions. The presence of drums on "Saturdays and Sundays" and "Out of the Running" will be enough to outrage many bluegrass purists all by itself, and the piano and pedal steel that pop up throughout the set sure won't make old-timey fans feel at home, either. And while the songwriting often follows the classic high lonesome template, the light but clear Rolling Stones influences on "Ringing in My Ears," the rock & roll stomp of "End of the Line," and the lingering dread of "Blue Jay Way" (not the Beatles tune) are a reminder that this band exists in the 21st century and aren't about to ignore their many influences outside Bill Monroe.
Wildwood, Chatham County Line’s fifth full-length album since their self-titled 2003 debut, finds the group continuing to go from strength to strength. The Raleigh-based band’s subtly evolving brand of bluegrass, country, and folk remains instantly reassuring, while the stellar quality of their original song-writing keeps their work fresh and relevant. The new album expands their sound to include piano, drums, and other instrumentation, and while there’s no single track here that has the power and impact of “Birmingham Jail”, the great song about the 1963 Baptist Church Bombing from their last release IV (2008), with Wildwood Chatham County Line have produced their most sustained and consistently compelling record yet.
Naming your band isn't an envious task under any set of criteria. Locating a unique moniker that evokes your sound or tells a prospective listener something about you is even harder, but by that standard, Chatham County Line chose wisely. Chatham County, North Carolina (there's one in Georgia, too), is located pretty much right in the middle of the state, south of Durham and Chapel Hill and directly West of Wake County, which has its seat in Raleigh, the state capital and the town in which the band formed.
On their previous four albums, North Carolinian quartet Chatham County Line has proven themselves one of just a handful of bands with both the unimpeachable technical skill and the contemporary point of view necessary to keep bluegrass music relevant as more than just a niche market. Their latest effort, Wildwood, stands as a minor disappointment, then, because it doesn’t offer anything new to advance either the band’s career narrative or their genre of choice. It falls victim to the same Catch-22 as Sharon Jones & the DAP-Kings’s I Learned the Hard Way: Chatham County Line has already proven that they can make a modern bluegrass record better than just about anyone, but they haven’t proven they can do much else.
On their 5th studio album, North Carolina string band Chatham County Line show no signs of ruining the good thing they’ve got going. Each album they’ve cranked out has been a keeper, and Wildwood is a grower, to say the least. Solid songwriting abounds; on “Ringing In My Ears,” they spin a host of hoary old rock and roll lyrics into a Dylan-esque stomper.