It has been suggested that I may be to country music what Niall Harrison is to science fiction – that is, I am from time to time known to give a free pass to a piece of generic songcraft which is (hem, hem) ‘in dialogue with its genre’. It’s also true that, like Niall and his SF, I’m most interested in the scruffier things at the edge of the mode – the core genre stuff of Kenny Rogers or Garth Brooks interests me less, in the main, than the more curious stuff at its edges, ‘hard’ works like Gillian Welch’s, or ‘hybrid’ offerings such as Calexico’s.
And so to ‘Wildwood’, the latest album from North Carolina bluegrass group, Chatham County Line. The group’s record label, Yep Roc, immediately singles them out as something other than an identikit Nashville outfit. Yep Roc have released Bob Mould and Robyn Hitchcock, among others, and Chatham County Line are an independent, even alt.country, act who are as popular in Europe as in their native US. That having been said, they are no Old Crow Medicine Show: that band’s punkish sensibility is watered down in Chatham County Line’s smoother production, and by Dave Wilson’s soft-if-strident vocals.
Wilson is the band’s lead songwriter, and he is indebted to his heritage: at times his act sounds like Bob Dylan and the Band, wry but respectful. It can’t be by accident that some of these songtitles seem familiar: Wildwood, of course, is in its non-compounded form the title of an album by labelmate Paul Weller; ‘Blue Jay Way’ is a tune from the Beatles’ Magical Mystery Tour; ‘End of the Line’ was one of the most famous singles of the Traveling Wilburies (one of whose number was one Mr Bob Dylan). The eighth track on the album is entitled ‘Ghost of Woody Guthrie’ – the band make no apologies for their reverence, even their recycling.
All of which is to say, of course, that here is an album in dialogue with its genre. Mandolins are trilled, banjo lines are rolled, and vocal harmonies are perfected. But there are within this rubric some wonderful songs – the title track, ‘Crop Comes In’, and ‘Out Of The Running’ all sound like standards already. ‘Ghost of Woody Guthrie’, too, is memorable and fresh, despite its storied inheritance. Do these songs have mainstream appeal? Perhaps not. Are they excellent – even transcendent – examples of their form? Indubitably.