Up in Line: Chatham County Line’s New Sound

The longtime Raleigh bluegrass band’s forthcoming album Hiyo incorporates electronic sounds and guest musicians to broaden their genre.
by Addie Ladner | photography by Eamon Queeney

Chatham County Line members, John Teer, Dave Wilson and Greg Readling at the Berkeley Cafe

Later this month, Americana band Chatham County Line will release its milestone 10th studio album. Made up of chief songwriter, vocalist and guitarist Dave Wilson; John Teer on mandolin; and Greg Readling on bass and pedal steel, Chatham County Line is known for its fun, modern folk sounds and rambling live shows.

On its new album, Hiyo, released through Yep Roc Records, the band delivers a portfolio of soft and punchy melodies — everlasting tunes that feel fresh, with a slight departure from its bluegrass roots.

Chatham County Line got its start in what the trio remembers fondly as “the Blue House” — an older two-story rental in Boylan Heights — in the late 1990s. Readling and Wilson lived there as students at NC State and had a band called Stillhouse. “It was a crash pad for musicians in Raleigh, mostly college students,” recalls Teer. With commercial buildings on all sides of the house, noise wasn’t an issue, so they could mess around with instruments and songwriting until the wee hours of the night.

Members of the metal group Corrosion of Conformity lived there; singer-songwriter Tift Merritt, with whom Readling and Wilson played, would also mosey over. Teer was in a country-rock jam band called Burgeon with Chandler Holt (an original member of Chatham County Line who retired a few years ago; they’re still close friends).

“It was pretty legendary. We’d throw these parties with so much music, people in and out. Of course, it was a bunch of college guys who couldn’t even afford heat, but it was such a magic time,” says Teer. “That was our big learning curve, was all the time we spent playing music there,” says Readling.

Wilson, Teer and Readling shared a love of music, especially playing acoustic, so eventually they decided to join forces. “Dave had all these great songs he wanted us to try out together and that’s where all the tunes started to be crafted and began,” says Teer.

Though not a single member planned on playing music for a living, it was omnipresent for each of them. Teer, the ham of the group and a wizard on mandolin, started playing violin at the age of 3 under the Suzuki method. He was a natural performer, says his mom, Angel Teer: “He took to it right away, but never did I ever think it would lead to him being a professional musician. I just wanted him to love music.” Readling, calm and soft-spoken, took music lessons as a child and played an array of instruments for fun through college, mostly piano, saxophone and electric bass.

Wilson, a history and film buff, English major and the lyricist of the group, grew up in an intellectual home that nurtured writing and music. He can remember his mom, a poet, singing songs in the evening. “I found out years later she had actually written these songs. Our house was full of fabulous books and great language,” he says.

While he, too, played music from childhood, it was the writing he gravitated to. “In songwriting, you get to take all these different elements and put them together and then the sound echoes the story, the delivery,” he says. “As life goes on I record little snippets of ideas and lyrics.”

Soon they started playing at joints like Hillsborough Street’s former Sadlacks and The Brewery. “I feel like Sadlacks is where I and a lot of other locals got to know them back in the day,” says Alex Little, the co-owner of music venue Berkeley Cafe. “They were really honing their sound then. It was more bluegrass. Over time, it’s gotten more modern but the roots are still there.”

In 2003, the band released its first album, Chatham County Line, a harmonious bluegrass record. Since then, songs of theirs like “Living in Raleigh Now,” “Wildwood” and “The Carolinian” have become local anthems. They’ve played all over the country and overseas, including in The Oslo Opera House in Norway. “That was one of the most extraordinary moments,” says Teer. “Probably the greatest place I’ve ever played.”

Over the years they’ve shared the stage with many musical greats, including The Avett Brothers, Lyle Lovett and Norwegian musician Jonas Fjeld. The group recorded a live album with Fjeld back in 2005 called Amerikabesøk, which reached #2 on Norwegian pop charts, right behind Amy Winehouse’s Back to Black. Brother of Song, also produced with Fjeld, went gold in Norway, topping 15,000 records sold, and in 2009 it was nominated for a Norwegian Grammy.

Angel remembers seeing them with Steve Martin & Martin Short in Hammond, Indiana, in 2019 and being surprised at the end of the bit when her son stayed on stage for a solo. “When he finished, everyone in that auditorium stood up and shouted rave comments. And after the show was over, I said to John, I’ve never heard you play that song. What’s the name of it?” she says. Turns out, he had just made it up. “It just comes to me. I play in the moment,” says Teer.

Their latest album took shape in a serendipitous way. In 2022, the group was cast in the Showtime miniseries George & Tammy. Filmed in Wilmington, the show needed real musicians. Teer played renowned guitarist Harold Bradley, Wilson was legendary pianist Pig Robbins and Readling was a member of one of George Jones’ live bands, The Jones Boys. On the set, they got to know Rachael Moore, the show’s music producer, an experienced industry professional who has worked with Alison Krauss, T Bone Burnett and Kacey Musgraves.

They convinced her to produce their next record. “I always preface with bluegrass acts that I don’t approach in a typical way. I like it a little rough around the edges, not pristine,” says Moore. That modern approach is what they were looking for, to be pushed out of their comfort zone. “We wanted something new and different. This album shows we aren’t afraid of trying new things. We are proud of every single song,” says Teer.

In late summer 2022, they convened in Asheville recording studio Echo Mountain. They turned it into a sound laboratory, using synthesizers, amps and mellotrons. Moore brought in an ensemble of seasoned musicians from Nashville to contribute both vocally and instrumentally: John Mailander on fiddle on mandolin, Jamie Dick on drums and percussion, Al Weatherhead on optigan, Matt Douglas on saxophone and Maya de Vitry on vocals.

Over the course of a week Hiyo was born, an album that somehow blends country, jazz, rock and, of course, bluegrass. Teer says the studio turned into a canvas for the group of creatives: “You’re making this giant picture to which you’re able to add touches and colors and vibes that you can’t do when playing live.”

On past albums they’ve had contributing musicians here and there, but this time they dove deeper, including drums on every track, and more electricity to prop up the foundation of strings.

“Summerline,” the record’s closing track, is an homage to the season and its romance — a jazzy, vintage-feel piece that’s one example of the band bending its norm. They ran the piano through a Leslie speaker to create a sort of ghostly sound; Wilson’s vocals were filtered through a guitar amp. The result is a song with a “New York City subway vibe,” Moore says. “It felt really neat to incorporate some of those elements into a string band song,” says Readling.

“Magic,” the second single, sounds like a love letter to an evening of live music. “John plays mandolin and just for fun we put it through this mellotron pedal,” says Moore. This gives the sounds more color and padding as opposed to just the sound of the mandolin acoustically. “The result is these glittering rakes in the background,” Moore says.

Some tracks carry more weight. In “Way Down Yonder,” Wilson challenges an old adage with the lyrics, It ain’t just sticks and stones, some words cut right to the bone. “I’m doing my part to correct the narrative,” he says. “This song could ring true today or 100 years ago.” Wilson says the song was inspired by racial epithets and the weight that words carry.

“Under the Willow Tree” is an all-acoustic, instrumental track that brings the band back to its roots in picking. Wilson said he challenged himself to write it: “I learned open tuning, which is a different way of tuning guitars, and then writing this instrumental tune came to me naturally.”

The song “BSR” is inspired by the natural wonder of the Mississippi River; it’s an example of Wilson’s imaginative lyrics. “I’m continually inspired that people can create new original music. That’s what our job is in the world, to create music that doesn’t sound like other music,” says Wilson.

Gold records and Showtime appearances aside, at the end of the day for this troupe, it’s just about their musical brotherhood. Each is quick to prop up the others: Wilson’s the creative; Readling, the backbone; Teer, the energy. Wilson’s always churning out words and Teer is focused on the sound.

“People are often surprised, but I am always listening closely to the music, the lyrics come last to me,” says Teer. Readling is dubbed the “dad” of the group. “My DNA makeup is more actualized as a support person, that’s more my comfort zone with two great front people,” he says.

“I’ve always thought that the lifestyle associated with music, the freedom and the adventure that it creates, ought to be counted as part of your compensation,” says Readling. “The fact that we’ve been able to stay together — that’s what I’m most proud of.”  

This article originally appeared in the January 2024 issue of WALTER magazine.