- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 7, 2005

Chatham County Line

Route 23

Yep Roc Records

Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver

You Gotta Dig a Little Deeper

Rounder

With trio harmony and instruments including banjo, guitar, mandolin and bass, the four young musicians in Chatham County Line are trying to blaze a new trail down bluegrass music’s well-beaten path. Mandolin player Doyle Lawson, with a career spanning four decades, is sticking to the high and lonesome road he helped pave.

Chatham County Line’s songs are original, yet they all hark back to traditional sounds and themes. The North Carolina-based quartet will be at the Birchmere in Alexandria Thursday and next Friday, opening for Tift Merritt.

Guitarist and vocalist Dave Wilson wrote most of the songs on “Route 23.” The disc kicks off “Nowhere to Sleep” with mandolin licks reminiscent of Bill Monroe in a hot-jazz arrangement. The following song, “Dark Clouds,” also has a Monroe feel.

The title track concerns the impact a new highway had on the singer’s father and his filling station along the old two-lane Route 23. The song paints a vivid picture of progress and the wreckage it sometimes leaves in its wake, and the vocals and instrumentation do it justice.

“Louisiana Freight Train” marries a lush harmony quartet — Caitlin Cary adds a fourth voice — to a spare instrumental arrangement to achieve a dreamlike quality in waltz time. Pedal steel guitar softly wails in the background as mandolin tremolo builds and builds, leading into the verses — a songwriting lesson in tension and release.

String wizard John Teer, an expert on tremolo mandolin, introduces his fiddle in “Gunfight in Durango,” an instrumental he wrote.

“Parlour Light,” yet another waltz, deals with a traveling musician’s vexation — is his sweetheart faithful while he’s out performing?

Banjo finally comes to the fore on the disc’s ninth track, the instrumental “Sun Up,” written by the band’s banjo player, Chandler Holt, who tosses in an occasional Earl Scruggs lick.

The disc slogs through two gospel-themed songs, a guitar-heavy “Make Some Pay” and a dark-sounding “Saro Jane,” before landing on the uptempo finale, “Born to Be With You,” written by Don Robertson.

Chatham County Line achieves a smooth sound that likely will have broad appeal. Mr. Wilson displays a knack for writing songs with traditional themes that have a timeless quality. Yet this disc lacks the high, lonesome vocals and high-octane instrumental virtuosity that characterizes most successful bluegrass music.

Mr. Lawson is known chiefly for his work in bluegrass gospel, and “You Gotta Dig a Little Deeper” is not really a departure, though it’s filled with secular songs. In a vocal trio featuring tenor Jamie Dailey and bass Barry Scott, Mr. Lawson brings his compelling gospel-honed harmonies to a dozen tracks of mostly new material.

Voted the International Bluegrass Music Association vocal group of the year every year since 2001, the band is scheduled to perform May 12 at the 50th Gettysburg Bluegrass Festival.

Mr. Lawson’s career dates to a short stint in the early 1960s with Jimmy Martin and his Sunny Mountain Boys. He extended his reach into bluegrass history as a sideman to banjo player J.D. Crowe. In the 1970s, he joined the legendary Country Gentlemen. He left to form his own band in 1979.

A song from this disc likely to get lots of airplay is “Saving Grace,” written by Jerry Salley and Aaron Wilborn. In the song, a man copes with his wife’s Alzheimer’s disease and his feelings as her memories of him fade away. It is a tear-jerker for the baby-boomer generation.

Two other songs destined for the bluegrass canon are “Girl From West Virginia,” written by Clyde Denny, Marie Denny and Wade Hill, and the title track, written by Carl H. Caldwell.

Mr. Lawson wrote only one of the disc’s tracks, an instrumental, “Rosine,” which also features the driving banjo of Terry Baucom, an original Quicksilver member who returned after a decades-long absence, as well as young fiddler J.W. Stockman.

The band’s sound is traditional yet fresh. The only “old” cover is a deftly executed version of Porter Wagoner’s bouncy “What Ain’t to Be Just Might Happen.”

Mr. Dailey, on guitar, and Mr. Scott, on bass, co-wrote the driving opening track, “Heartbreak Number Nine.”

With the exception of Thomas Glenn Fletcher’s plodding “Blues for My Darling” — which has an introduction perilously similar to John Prine’s “Paradise” — the record maintains this drive from the start with its soaring harmonies and sinuous instrumental leads.

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