Alternatives to Alt-Folk
Alternatives to Alt-Folk
A Q&A with Dave Wilson
Of Chatham County Line
By Geoff Gehman
The four members of Chatham County Line like to add new colors to bluegrass and alternatives to alternative folk. Their ballads and breakdowns have an unusually large cast of characters: a Confederate soldier, Woody Guthrie, the victims of the 1963 bombing of a black Baptist church in Birmingham, Ala. For a decade they’ve been collaborating with Jonas Fjeld, a popular Danish musician who collaborated with Rick Danko and Eric Andersen. They’re treated royally in Denmark, where they’ve shared two gold records and two Spellemannprisen, or Danish Emmys.
At the same time they’ve managed to sound old fashioned, with their streaming, nesting vocals and their caressing, careening instrumentals. They’ve also managed to look old fashioned, wearing jackets and ties while performing around a single mic dressed up like a mile marker.
CCL has been around for 15 years, gigging everywhere from Merlefest to the Rochester International Jazz Festival. On June 27 the quartet will visit the Mauch Chunk Opera House for the first time. Below, in a conversation from his home in North Carolina, Dave Wilson, the band’s guitarist, lead vocalist and chief songwriter, discusses the rarity of re-recording a song with new lyrics and the rarity of performing a Norwegian number inspired by a German-American’s report on sexuality.
Q: Your mother Dede is a prominent poet. Do you hear her voice while you’re writing songs?
A: Not really. I know that she would sing us songs and rhyming things she had written when we were very little. I’m sure that some of that comes bouncing around my brain every now and then.
Q: Where did you go while making your latest record, “Tightrope” [Yep Roc, 2014], that you had never gone? I’ve read that you guys spent more time rehearsing new songs, breaking them down and building them up, that you wrote more tunes together and that you tried to make every one good enough to end up on a greatest-hits collection.
A: We spent a lot of time choosing songs during the making of our live album and concert film [“Sight & Sound,” 2012]. When you’re in that groove you probably overanalyze your past output. This time we took our new songs and went to an auditorium in rural North Carolina and stood onstage and imagined performing as if a crowd was watching us. It helped us analyze our strengths and weaknesses and what the songs could be. We love making records but really and truly what we do best is perform live.
Q: You did something pretty novel on “Tightrope” when the band re-recorded your song “Will You Still Love Me” with your new lyrics. What didn’t you like about version No. 1 and why are you happier with version no. 2?
A: Parts of it we loved when we recorded it for “Wildwood” , but there were parts not 100 percent there. The flow was always wrong; the story wasn’t correct. I blame myself as the writer; I didn’t spend enough time on it.
We were in a hotel room somewhere after we had played and I was looking through files of songs we’d recorded and I noticed “Will You Still Love Me.” I immediately pictured the right way the story should unfold. Sometimes you can only hear a song when you step away from it long enough. Perhaps that’s age or wisdom or the fact that we got married. Editing is a huge part of the business. Everybody’s first draft is usually crap but if you live long enough you can usually make something better out of it. A lot of songs you can jot down but all the greatest songs took some red ink.
You know, when you’re really young you write some silly stuff. As you get older, you really start understanding what you’re doing. Although it’s amazing that virtually every amazing song and recording was done by someone 26 or younger, someone with nothing to lose. The aging process is such a mystery.
Q: Are you planning any celebrations to mark the band’s 15-year anniversary?
A: There are no celebrations. It’s kind of fun to let history move on. Although I kind of wish I’d written down every show. It would be nice to know when we played our 1,000th gig.
Q: Can you put your finger on three significant ways that the 2015 edition of CCL is different from CCL circa 2000?
A: [Mandolinist/fiddler] John [Teer]’s easy because he lost around 100 pounds. I have a much nicer guitar now. I obviously have gray hair, or graying hair. I guess we’re more informed, perhaps because we travel a lot. We’ve experienced a lot of mileage that comes out in the songs. We used to go to a town for the first time and not know where the venue was and get ourselves lost and distracted. Now that we’ve played venues multiple times there’s no map needed, especially since everything [including directions] is on your phones. That’s a big help but it’s also a hindrance. It takes away some of the magic of touring, the spontaneous discoveries.
Q: You have a nurturing relationship with singer-songwriter Jonas Fjeld, who sings as if he grew up in Tennessee instead of Norway. How do you make music with him and why do you like making music with him?
A: He just has the most amazing voice, and his interpretations are just so pure. He writes something on guitar and sings into a tape recorder. He will just “la-la” out the melody. He has about five English words he uses as place holders: “Mountain.” “Valley.” “Angel.” “Snow.” He sends you these tapes and you just imagine how they would work as songs. It’s a really funny process but it’s good for me as a writer because I don’t usually collaborate with other writers. It’s good to take a melodic construction and mood and fit words on top of it. We’ve written several good songs together, including “Boy,” a sort of Peter Pan story.
Q: How has working with Jonas changed you, and how do you think you’ve changed Jonas?
A: Jonas is kind of a creature of habit; his ways have long been cast in concrete. We had so much fun working together from the onset that he just wanted to keep coming back and playing with us. With us he can just be one of the boys. Over there [in Norway] we can just hang out and have a cold one and be ourselves.
We’ve had a lot of fun performing songs from his past. He wrote one of them after reading the Hite Report, this [influential 1970s] study of sexuality [by Shere Hite, a German-American sex educator and feminist]. He tells these stories onstage in Norway and we try to follow him, to understand what he’s talking about. Evidently, he and this guy were reading the Hite Report and there was this question asking women do they like cunnilingus and there were only three answers you could give: seldom, not likely and maybe. As I said, we try to understand what he’s talking about [laughs].
Q: You’re quite popular in Denmark, thanks in part to Jonas’ popularity. Are there any elements of the Danish music industry that you’d like to import to the States?
A: Denmark has as many people as Tennessee but they’re spread around a surface area as big as our East Coast. What you have is essentially a giant small town. When we’d play a show it would be in a city paper the next day, either in a review or a photo. It’s great to know that people are responding to what you’re doing in a positive way. It’s a really healthy thing to let the musicians know that what they’re doing is appreciated and to encourage them to keep doing it.
Q: I’m always curious about the afterlife of songs, how they zag when you expect you to zig. Can you identify a tune that took a surprising path after you released it into the world? What about “Hawk,” which revolves around the friendship of a recently deceased World War II vet and a younger man?
A: It went through several drafts. It began when I saw a hawk one day. Later on, at my wife’s grandmother’s funeral, I met a man who had served in World War II who was nicknamed “Hawk.” If you’ve ever been to a funeral involving veterans, or a veterans center, the experience can be patriotic and insanely emotional and life altering. A year later I learned about the death of a vet who had served in the Air Force in World War II who was also nicknamed “Hawk.” My story was invented but it had a real-life counterpart. It was eerie. I don’t know if that stuff is in the ether.
Q: Your song “Confederate Soldier” traces the legacy of another, more local war. Do you have deep Civil War roots?
A: John Teer probably has the deepest Civil War roots in the band. He’s descended from a famous general who said a lot of really strange things and has not a so great legacy. When you’re from the South, the Civil War legacy is in the earth. There are historical markers everywhere, wherever you travel. Thinking your own house could be on a place where people died fighting for their rights, whatever those rights were, is an amazing thing.
Q: What does wearing a jacket and a tie do for you? Does it center you like performing around a single mic?
A: It started out as a tribute to the Del McCoury Band, who just blew me away when I saw them in the early ’90s. When you put on [the suit] and start playing, you realize why the masters did it. Putting the suit on, putting the boots on, puts your mind into the right place; it reminds you to respect the audience, that these people paid good money to see you. It’s not a cloak per se but it really focuses your energy.
Q: What tops your Bucket List? Recent Mauch Chunk interviewees have mentioned everything from roaming the globe to reducing world hunger.
A: I’d love to perform in the Ryman Auditorium [in Nashville]. To feel like you’ve progressed in your art enough to stand upon that stage and perform for people would be a reward in and of itself. I’m sure that artists feel the same way when their work is exhibited at the Metropolitan Museum.
Q: What tops your Fuck It List? Recent Mauch Chunk interviewees have mentioned everything from ending religions that kill the spirit to killing all snakes.
A: World musical domination. When you’re young and getting started, you want to be the next U2 or REM. I’ve reached this realization that no good could come for a band like us if we hungered for that kind of success. I’d like to travel around the country and play on beautiful stages for 250 people who smile when they listen to us. That’s really all I could want.
[Pauses] I like snakes.
Dave Wilson: The Scoop
His first favorite album was “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club.”
His song “Blue Jay Way” was inspired by bird watching, not George Harrison’s tune on “Magical Mystery Tour.”
He and his friend, upright bassist Greg Readling, were playing at the Blue House, a musicians’ sanctuary in Raleigh, N.C., when they met their future Chatham County Line partners John Teer (mandolin, fiddle) and Chandler Holt (guitar, banjo).
His mother, Dede Wilson, wrote a book of poems about a great-great grandmother who sailed from England to New Orleans, married her captain during the trip, watched him die in a duel, and then married his killer.
He also plays in Stillhouse, an alt-country band.
The recording of his song “Final Reward,” a soldier’s elegy, features a French horn part on the Chamberlin, an electro-mechanical keyboard introduced in the 1940s.
Geoff Gehman is a former arts writer for The Morning Call in Allentown. His favorite Chatham County Line songs include “Ghost of Woody Guthrie” and “Song for John Hartford.” He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.