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Q&A: Chatham County Line dishes on 10th album, 20 years of making music

Dave Wilson, John Teer and Greg Readling of Chatham County Line with their instruments.
York Wilson
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As they release their 10th album, the Raleigh-based Americana trio Chatham County Line celebrates 20 years of performing together.

Raleigh-based Americana band Chatham County Line releases their 10th album, HIYO, on Friday.

Singer and guitarist Dave Wilson said a sense of freedom surrounded the writing and recording of the new record, aided and abetted by new collaborators and new sounds.

Wilson and bandmate John Teer spoke with WUNC about the inspiration behind the new songs and what it's like to celebrate 20 years of making music together.

This is an excerpt of an edited transcript of that conversation. You can hear the full interview by clicking the LISTEN button at the top of this post.

Before we get to your latest record, how did you wind up the backing band for the Showtime series about the relationship between country legends George Jones and Tammy Wynette?

John Teer: "Well, we had a good friend of ours Zeke Hutchins, he used to play drums with us on our electric holiday tours that we used to have and I believe a friend of his had reached out looking for some local North Carolina musicians to play some roles of of musicians on the show and he reached out to Zeke and Zeke said, 'I have got the guys for you. I know who to get in touch with.'"

Dave Wilson: "It was amazing to sit in that studio, because we were the 18 musicians in a recreation of the Quonset Hut, which is a famous studio in Nashville. And we got to sit there for 10 days, watching master class actors act out scenes over and over. And it was a learning process. You know, musicians pick up stuff from everywhere. And I really think watching their professionalism and their drive to create something amazing. It rubbed off on us when we went in the studio."

Teer: "It was amazing. Just like Dave was saying the process of the show and having that front, front row seat to the best actors imaginable with Michael Shannon and Jessica Chastain."

Snazzy synthesizers open "Magic," which sounds like an ode to making music. Can it feel like magic when a song comes together?

Wilson: "Yeah, you know, from our humble beginnings around a single microphone with four guys not plugged in or anything. We decided to retool to make the band more into the sounds we were hearing in the world and the music that we listened to in the van driving around. And so we added a percussionist and we just forged ahead, everything's plugged in, we place through all sorts of effects, technology is created now that makes an acoustic guitar really sound like an acoustic guitar live. And that's one reason we never plugged anything in for years was really a tonal quest to sound exactly like the instrument. And now that technology exists, and when we hit a stage, Greg has a pedal steel there I've got electric guitar, John plays his mandolin through a Mellotron pedal occasionally. It's really magical. It's subterfuge, it's all the smoke and mirrors you can imagine. But we still get to get on the microphone and sing three part harmony together, which connects us to where we came from."

I love that primitive drum machine that opens "Heaven." Is this song an ode to a favorite drinking establishment?

Wilson: "It's kind of an ode to all those establishments that we've been fortunate enough to spend time in through the years. That song is a great example of the process we went through with this album. Reforming the band, we got to look at our back catalogue, and take some songs and just retool them completely for the new instrumentation. And so if you're thinking like that, you're looking at that song almost as if you're covering yourself. For those of you that don't know a cover song is when you know, we — Chatham County Line — plays a Bruce Springsteen song, or something like that. But we recover in ourselves. And so when we got the songs together for this record, I really looked at them as covers, as what can we do to the song to just amplify its message and its tone to reach its fullest potential? And how would you do that? And 'Heaven' was really the one that that stood out from that process it, it started its life as a country shuffle, and then ends up as sort of this gloomy, upbeat meditation. And I'll admit that I was very informed by the writing of Phoebe Bridgers of all things on that song because I really fell in love with her records."

It sounds like you're having a lot of fun. Are you looking forward to getting out on tour again?

Teer: "Oh, absolutely. Just the construction of taking these songs through the new filter of the band. And I think it's even for our hardcore fans that have been with us from the beginning and know about us, there's always been this evolution of what we're doing from record to record. So now that we're here, with this new lineup, I think it's exciting to be able to play this type of material, especially from the album."

How did you get that vocal effect on the song "Summerline?"

Wilson: "You know, I love that song. And that was one of the strengths that (producer) Rachel Moore brought to the studio for us is we would be setting up to do a song and she would come in and she could she look at you playing your instruments. She's like, 'How can we mess this up? Plug into that, plug into that, try this.' And the piano is a perfect example on that track. We ended up running it through a Leslie speaker, which those are mainly used for Hammond Organ and organ parts as you hear on like a Black Crowes record. But the vocal — I believe we ran it through a guitar amp and another room and that's where it got that ethereal quality.

You co-wrote that with bass player pedal steel and piano man Greg Readling. You two also co-wrote the lead song, "Right On Time." Do you like collaborating, Dave?

Wilson: "I do. I don't do it a lot because I have to go to a really weird place when I write and it's not a place that a bunch of people need to come hang out in. But I do like the challenge of, say, someone coming up with a melody. You know, 'Right On Time.' was a pedal steel instrumental — Greg's a great pedal steel player. And we would play that instrumental and I would feel like there was a song coming right after it. And so, at one run-through I just started playing a song and that song turns into 'Right On Time.'"

Chatham County Line plays two in-store performances this weekend at Schoolkids Records in Raleigh and Chapel Hill. They'll also make a stop at the Rialto Theatre in Raleigh Feb. 17.

Eric Hodge hosts WUNC’s broadcast of Morning Edition, and files reports for the North Carolina news segments of the broadcast. He started at the station in 2004 doing fill-in work on weekends and All Things Considered.
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