“The best music is made with complete total freedom,” says Chatham County Line singer/guitarist Dave Wilson. “We spent a lot of years pushing at the fences, but with this album, we’ve finally busted out of the corral.”
Hiyo, Chatham County Line’s tenth studio release, is indeed something of a reintroduction to the North Carolina roots stalwarts, one fueled by new sounds, new collaborators, and a whole new lease on life. Recorded at Asheville’s Echo Mountain studio with co-producer/engineer Rachael Moore (Kacey Musgraves, Robert Plant and Alison Krauss), the collection finds Wilson and bandmates John Teer (fiddle/mandolin) and Greg Readling (bass/pedal steel) embracing change at every turn, experimenting with fresh sonic palettes and innovative approaches to their core instrumentation. The songwriting remains classic Chatham County Line here—rich, evocative tales of love and heartbreak, joy and sorrow, righteousness and revenge—but the settings have evolved to incorporate synthesizers, drum machines, and more electric guitar and percussion than ever before. Given the group’s string band roots and decades spent singing around a single microphone, the results are nothing short of revelatory, taking an enduring sound and injecting it with a thrilling new spirit of discovery and vitality.
“We’re having more fun playing together now than we’ve ever had before,” says Wilson. “There’s this liberating element to getting rid of all the preconceptions about who we are and what we sound like, and I think it shows in these songs.”
Launched a little more than twenty years ago in Raleigh, North Carolina, Chatham County Line built a devoted local following on the strength of their genre-bending live show—an intoxicating blend of bluegrass, folk, country, and rock and roll—before breaking out internationally with their 2003 self-titled debut. In the years to come, the band would go on to release eight more critically acclaimed studio albums, top the Billboard Bluegrass Chart four times, collaborate with the likes of Judy Collins, Sharon Van Etten, and Norwegian star Jonas Fjeld, earn two gold records in Norway (where they were also twice nominated for the Spellemannprisen, Norway’s equivalent of a Grammy), and share bills with everyone from Guy Clark and Lyle Lovett to Steve Martin & Martin Short and The Avett Brothers. NPR hailed the group as “a bridge between bluegrass traditions and a fresh interpretation of those influences,” while Uncut lauded their “powerful melodies and gorgeous harmonies,” and Pitchfork dubbed their music “timeless.” Nothing lasts forever, though, and when Chatham County Line shared their most recent album, 2020’s Strange Fascination, they announced it would be their final release with banjo player Chandler Holt.
“When Chandler retired, replacing him with another banjo player didn’t feel like the right move,” says Readling. “Choosing to instead add a drummer to our touring lineup gave us the freedom to evolve while still honoring Chandler’s rich history with us.”
During a stint serving as the backing band on the Showtime series George & Tammy, Chatham County Line met the woman who would help kick that evolution into high gear.
“We had an immediate rapport with Rachael on set,” Teer recalls. “She was the right-hand woman to T Bone Burnett, who was the music producer on the show before he handed the reins over to her, and she had this incredible knowledge of music and recording. Watching her work with Michael Shannon and Jessica Chastain, who starred in the show, was eye opening, and it seemed obvious that she would be a perfect fit for our next album.”
The songs that were taking shape at the time were unlike anything else in the Chatham County Line catalog. In the absence of Holt, Wilson had begun playing electric guitar more, tuning his Stratocaster to open G and approaching it like a banjo. He also fashioned a pickup for his acoustic that allowed him to simultaneously cover guitar and bass parts, which freed up Readling to play dreamy, atmospheric pedal steel accompaniments. Teer, meanwhile, found himself experimenting with unusual sounds on his mandolin, running it through a mellotron pedal to create lush, warm beds for the music to float on.
“We’d been embracing a new approach to our live show ever since Chandler retired, and it was a natural progression to bring that into the recording process,” Readling explains. “We’d always pushed the envelope before, but having a new lineup really felt like the green light we needed to put anything and everything on the table in the studio.”
By the time the band began tracking with Moore, they’d already recorded multiple versions of the songs on their own, which allowed them to get progressively tighter and more daring with the material.
“I could tell the guys were ready to go somewhere new, and I wanted to see how far we could stretch the boundaries,” Moore recalls. “We agreed we’d still do things thoughtfully and be true to who they were, but they all have very eclectic, wide-ranging tastes and influences, and ten albums into their career, this felt like a chance to explore some springs that they maybe hadn’t gotten to tap into before.”
That adventurous spirit is easy to hear on Hiyo, which opens with the rousing “Right On Time.” Building from a dreamy instrumental swirl into a rollicking, harmony-driven ode to young love and the open road, the track balances nostalgia and modernity in equal measure as it sets the stage for a subtly virtuosic album that marries traditional and experimental elements with understated ease. The hypnotic “Heaven” pairs a lo-fi drum machine with verbed out electric guitar and harmonica in a tribute to barstool nirvana, while the tongue-in-cheek “Lone Ranger” meditates on the playful side of love amidst the band’s trademark harmonies and a droning harmonium, and the lush “Magic” brings together arpeggiated synthesizers and gently plucked banjo in a celebration of the mysterious power of music itself.
“We go to concerts to be amazed and dumbfounded, to laugh and cry, to dream and fall in love,” Wilson explains. “When we play a show, it’s not just music. It’s magic.”
Magic is everywhere you look on Hiyo. The swampy “BSR” conjures up the sweltering heat of the Delta South; a spellbinding take on Hank Cochran’s “She’s Got You” transforms the country staple into something wholly new and mesmerizing; and the eerily cinematic “Way Down Yonder” fuses past and present in a reimagining of the old school murder ballad form with a little help from vocalist Maya de Vitry and a pair of Moore’s friends, fiddler John Mailander (Bruce Hornsby, Billy Strings) and drummer Jamie Dick (Watchhouse, Rhiannon Giddens), whose unique voicings and subtle flourishes consistently elevate the band’s performances throughout the record. It’s perhaps album closer “Summerline,” though, that best encapsulates Chatham County Line’s limitless approach to the album, bringing together hints of the Great American Songbook and vintage jazz alongside classic folk and country to form something that’s at once deeply familiar and entirely unexpected.
“This whole process was a breath of fresh air, and I’d lie awake at night while we were recording in disbelief that we could capture these sounds,” Wilson reflects. “This album is the three of us distilled down into the purest essence of what this band can be, and there’s nothing more freeing than that.”