If Dave Wilson had GPS back in 1999, he might not have called his then-newly formed bluegrass string band Chatham County Line.
Wilson (guitar/lead vocals), John Teer (mandolin/fiddle/vocals), Chandler Holt (banjo/vocals), and Greg Readling (bass/pedal steel/keyboards/vocals) had just transitioned from "a group of guys jamming, to an honest to goodness band," says Wilson, when they started rehearsing at Holt's farmhouse out in the country. On the ride from Raleigh, Wilson and Teer would frequently miss the turn and cross the county line.
"We'd see the big 'Chatham County Line' road sign and realize we'd gone too far. The third time it happened, we looked at each other, and we knew we had our band name."
Ever since, Chatham County Line has never shied from going outside the lines. Ostensibly a traditional bluegrass combo with all-acoustic instruments, the foursome has tethered the upbeat tempos and rapid-fire instrumental runs of their chosen genre to compassionate, conflicted narratives about the cares, concerns — and transcendent joys — of adulthood. The band's approach is "kind of period," Wilson says. "When we record and perform live, nothing is plugged in. We play the old time instruments. But we look at things from a modern perspective."
The band's latest — and seventh — studio release Autumn continues this trend. Though the album was recorded in two sessions at Fidelitorium Recordings in Kernersville in the fall of 2014 and 2015, it also draws its name from the autumnal, reflective feel to the set's homespun yet intricate original tunes, Wilson says. He believes the songs' various themes point to the time of year when thoughts turn inward, and he maintains that after 17 years together, the band continues change with the seasons — they're still growing up.
"I'm speaking of us as individuals," he says. "When you play music for a living, you seem to think you'll be a kid forever. (But now), people are having kids. Greg has a six-year-old starting school. Chandler has a two-year-old who's always trying to play his banjo."
"The truth is you always have stuff to learn, and you can always grow and get better or smarter or more responsible," Wilson says. "It's become a great adventure to do that with these three other guys."
Wilson's musical adventure began when he was growing up in Charlotte. His mother Dede Wilson, an esteemed poet whose fourth book, Eliza: The New Orleans Years has been produced as a one-woman show at venues including the defunct Carolina Actors Studio Theatre, "used to write silly songs, that she would sing to me in the cradle," Wilson says. He recalls his father taking him a few years later, "to see Chet Atkins play at Spirit Square. I was just blown away by what that man could do on a guitar."
In 1996 Wilson was playing guitar with Teer in Raleigh-based Americana band Stillhouse when the pair met up with Holt and Readling. The foursome ditched electric guitars and struck out in an acoustic direction due to "youthful guidance from happenstance," Wilson remembers. "We went to a Del McCoury show in Durham and saw the way they performed around the single mic with traditional instruments. Everything just clicked into place at that moment."
Seventeen years later, elements are still falling into place for the four band mates. As on Chatham County Line's previous albums Wildwood and Tightrope, Wilson produced the Autumn sessions, recording them piecemeal. "We did a couple of three day sessions that we shoehorned in when we weren't playing on the road."
"We've always looked at this band as an offshoot to our day-to-day lives," Wilson explains. "We enjoy that we have this great outlet for our musical exploits, but at the same time, no one is missing his kid's second birthday party."
This grounding in everyday life informs Autumn's 11 ruminative songs, nine of which were written or co-written by Wilson. Though the band can tear into a rollicking ramble like the instrumental "Bull City Strut", "Jackie Boy", Wilson's plangent lament for a deceased — and beloved — dog, best characterizes the album.
Wilson noticed that many of my friends' pets were ageing and dying, and says that such a bittersweet moment can also be a lesson — life's notice that we have to move on. He believes there's comfort to be found in "the incredible gift" of memories. "Your memories are something that can never be taken from you."
"I'm sentimental," Wilson confesses. " The world is fragile, (but) people can also be very gracious to each other. When beautiful things happen it's hard not to see our shared humanity."
If the Indian summer of "Jackie Boy" represents light, "Dark Rider" is the other side of the album and the season it is named after. Over a gathering storm of stuttering banjo, stinging mandolin and rattlesnake guitar, Wilson sings about a spectral figure who rides the midnight hour, hunting for souls. The song is like a cautionary tale told around a campfire.
"I love ghost stories," Wilson says. "This is just my way of adding another one to the fold. I've always felt the greatest tool in parent's toolbox is the threat of the boogieman. If you don't act right, some greater force or mystical power is going to correct you and keep you on the path. That's basically what religion does in a lot of ways as well."
"Life has so many dark moments," says Wilson summing up the contrast of sun and shade in Chatham County Line's autumnal new album. "You spend a third of your life with your eyes closed, and the other part is the light that brings all healing and good to the world."
"I can't explain where songs come from. Sometimes they're just there. You pick up a guitar, play a little bit, and something happens."
"Besides," he adds laughing, "after this long hot summer, who isn't looking forward to fall?"