(Yep Roc Records) Dave Wilson's Mark Twain reference on "By the Riverside" may be his best inadvertent self-analysis yet: "Got some fishing line and a hickory limb/ Sat there thinking about Huck and Jim," Wilson sings like a lighthearted, blithe layabout, John Teer's violin sweeping lithe patterns across an affable mandolin/upright bass/banjo/guitar bounce.
On Speed of the Whippoorwill, Chatham County Line's third album, Wilson seems to be taking his best cues from Twain, borrowing the quintessential humorist's ability to tell highly specific stories about stipulated scenarios and have them read like authoritative parables about life at large. Like Twain, Wilson is as likely to make you laugh as to make you cry. His songwriting is as endearing as anyone currently trading in folk or 'grass, and--like Twain's wise, avuncular tone--his voice sells the stories like an uncle at a family dinner.
Wilson sings songs about decades he's only read about and centuries he never saw, casting entirely real, yet imagined vagabonds as heroes looking for money and/or hope: A father totes his sons around the country singing folk songs and cutting records; a frightened Confederate soldier finds solace in a female rescuer; a railroad worker has hope in knowing he'll one day return to the arms of his lover. Wilson's biggest achievement, though, is his ability to sound entirely convincing doing this, to wear old-timey folk ballads comfortably. He's not pretending to have been there as much as he is imagining how it must have felt to be a social scoundrel a century ago. The songs are more about emotional milieu than solipsistic explanation.
And, here, Chatham County Line follows suit: The Speed of the Whippoorwill finds the band in its most natural state yet, not trying to be folk purists, bluegrass upgraders or a rock band without amplifiers. Instead, they're just playing, offering some of the band's most unorthodox arrangements yet, muted banjo manning the whole melody of one number. Chandler Holt's banjo work and immersion into the ensemble has doubled (he gets two songs here), and Greg Readling, too, provides non-traditional textures with a bowed-bass drone on the title cut. He even adds anachronistic pedal steel to "Confederate Soldier," again an indication that Wilson and his bandmates are striving for something bigger than vicarious anecdotes. And, together with the perfect open-air feel of Brian Paulson's production and John Teer's nuanced multi-instrumental dexterity, they get pretty close.