Since their formation in 1999, Raleigh bluegrass troubadours Chatham County Line, have achieved national embrace and unimaginable success in unexpected locales. Timeless, but hardly throwbacks, the four pickers adhere to the principle of honoring the bluegrass movement’s founding fathers, while composing outright haunting, poetic lyrical and musical gems of their own exceptional design. Suited to the nines, gathered around a single microphone (a la bluegrass legends The Del McCoury Band), Chatham County Line – now legends in their own right — preach their gospel, lifting hearts, enlightening audiences, proudly serving as diplomats of North Carolina’s rich musical heritage.
It’s within the longstanding traditions of rambling and storytelling that their songs exist, but the essence of both the music and lyrics subscribe less to a particular place in time, but more a state of mind. That’s not to say they aren’t socially conscious. A stark illustration can be found in “Birmingham Jail,” lead crooner and guitarist Dave Wilson’s gut-wrenching account of the 1963 church bombings which took the lives of four young girls.
Around 2006, the high, lonesome vocal harmonies and dulcet, stirring strings of Chatham County Line caught the attention of famed Norwegian musical artist, Jonas Fjeld, who’s invitation for the band to join him overseas resulted in the release of a live album. Much to their shock and surprise, the album went gold, earning the quartet rock-star status in Scandinavia.
Recently, fellow North Carolina bluegrass dynamos The Steep Canyon Rangers asked CCL to pick up a few dates supporting Steve Martin and Martin Short’s music and comedy tour. For those of you who don’t know, Steve Martin has been playing banjo with Steep Canyon Rangers for years.
In 2019 Chatham County Line released their ninth album, Sharing the Covers, a collection of songs by others they want the world to hear, hopefully enjoy, and discover the artists who originally wrote them.
I caught up with multi-instrumentalist John Teer, to chat about the early days, his influences, topping the Norwegian charts, and what the future holds for the quartet.
NSJ: What shaped your tastes? Got you into music? How and when did Bluegrass become your thing?
JT: Well, it started later. My mom started me on violin at age three, so I had no choice in the matter. She started me with the Suzuki method of Violin training. Freshman year, I heard Nirvana’s Smells Like Teen Spirit, and it just changed everything for me. I’m still an insanely huge Black Sabbath fan. In high school, I was consistently listening over and over again to every song by Black Sabbath ever.
NSJ: Wow, I was not expecting that. What about bluegrass? After high school, you studied fiddle under Jan Johansson. Was that the turning point?
JT: Yeah, he got me into all the classics like Bill Monroe, and had me go back and listen to everything, and the roots of all the music. That kind of opened my eyes and ears to that sound of bluegrass and where it all began.
NSJ: In high school, I was lucky to see you, Chandler Holt and others in local Raleigh band, Burgeon. To this day, I still love many of the songs you chose to play. John Hartford’s “Joseph’s Dream” being one. What was the thinking behind that? Is that what Sharing the Covers is all about?
JT: We thought, if we were goanna do cover songs, let’s only do the deep cuts, let’s do the cool covers that we know about that no one else does. No popular stuff, just these cool underground tunes that we can show to the world. That’s sort of the idea behind the song selection on Sharing the Covers.
NSJ: What was going on in the Triangle leading up to the formation of CCL? What was the vibe, and who were you going out to see and hear?
JT: For me, the mid 90’s was all about that Alt-Country movement. It was happening and you could feel it in the air. There was a sense of, damn, is this the new Seattle? Is this the new thing happening in Raleigh? In a way, it was. I look back fondly at going to The Cave and seeing Tift Merit, Ryan Adams playing with Whiskeytown at The Brewery, Six String Drag crushing it at Sadlacks on Hillsborough Street. The Spectator was a huge part of learning about all of that stuff, and we wanted to be part of that community.
NSJ: Tell me about Norway. CCL performed with Jonas, the live record came out, then what happened? Were you nominated for their version of the Grammy? What was it about your music that struck accord with Norwegians?
JT: Jonas took the best of each night, made an album, and put it out on Sony in Norway, and it immediately went gold. It was crazy. Yeah, we were competing with like the Amy Winehouse of Norway. I think they were embracing and feeling the acoustic American music and the way Jonas presented it.
NSJ: What N.C. artists are you into these days? It’s phenomenal how much amazing music comes out of N.C. and the triangle. What’s your take on that? Something in the water?
JT: I’m huge fan of Mike Taylor (Hiss Golden Messenger) and that album, Heart like a Levee, and Matt Douglas. That whole band is just amazing. Phil Cook’s projects are just phenomenal. He’s got this soul and his finger on the pulse. We’re so happy to see what Mandolin Orange has been doing, Mipso Trio. Matt Phillips! He’s young and hungry, I see something special in that kid. It’s amazing, there’s just so many amazing bands from this state.
NSJ: What’s next for Chatham County Line?
JT: This past February, we made another record with Jonas Fjeld and Judy Collins in Asheville which we will be touring with her in the fall, and in December we are going to Norway and Europe with them. The album comes out in November. It’s Judy Collins and Jonas Fjeld and we’re basically the backing band for the whole record.
NSJ: I have to ask about your experience with Steve Martin and Martin Short.
JT: It’s been incredible to be able to perform with those guys. They’re just hilarious, and really down to earth on and off stage. Very kind and welcoming, and we’ve played all these amazing theaters. One night, Steve Martin looked at a goofy video of myself I put on Instagram and started cracking up. Martin Short looks at me and he’s like, hey how about that? You just made Steve Martin laugh.
NSJ: Amazing. Thanks, John.
Chatham County Line are: John Teer (Mandolin, fiddle, vocals), Chandler Holt (Banjo, vocals), Dave Wilson (vocals, guitar), and Greg Reading (bass, pedal steel, piano, vocals)