Sitting in his living room on Glenwood Avenue on a Tuesday night, John Teer is commiserating. His iPod is plugged into a small corner stereo, playing the latest record from his and Chatham County Line's Yep Roc labelmates, Dolorean. The Portland band is an heir apparent to Elliott Smith's aloof beauty, and Teer is feeling it.
A guitar, fiddle and mandolin lean against the walls and the couch. A mug of beer, half-empty, sits on the coffee table, otherwise lined with typing paper dotted by chord changes, letters and words scratched in an unsure hand.
Teer's fiancé, Amy, is a head waitress at Ruth's Chris Steak House, and she left for a two-month business trip in Atlantic City this afternoon. From the looks of things--the beer, the fragmentary songs scattered across the table, the excess of instruments, the sad record, the two Shih Tzus bouncing around the den looking for their mom--Teer is lonely.
But that's not the case, exactly. For the past few hours, Teer has been listening to Jonas Fjeld, a Norwegian folk musician who recorded two albums with Eric Andersen and Rick Danko in the '90s. The trio was discussing a third record when Danko died in 1999. Teer--himself a devotee of Danko's The Band--has been fleshing out fiddle fills for Fjeld's material, working from the Danko/Fjeld/Andersen albums and from a one-man-and-a-mic demo Fjeld recorded at his summer home in Sweden to mail to the four members of Chatham County Line.
Teer is sketching out song structures and listening carefully to the choruses, trying to figure out how to sing harmonies in Norwegian.
In a week, Fjeld will arrive from Norway. He'll rehearse with Chatham County Line--Teer, songwriter and guitarist Dave Wilson, banjo man Chandler Holt and bassist Greg Readling--for three days and fly back to Norway. On Christmas night, CCL will fly to Norway, rehearse for one day and then play six shows over three days in the Drammen Theater, a 400-seater in Fjeld's hometown of Drammen, a city of 60,000 people about 45 minutes southwest of Oslo. Teer has been excited about the rehearsals for months, but he's nervous, too.
"I used to listen to all of those Gipsy Kings records when I was young, and I would sing along with harmonies," Teer says, noting that the chance to sing in Norwegian is one of the coolest--albeit hardest--things he's done yet as a professional musician. "Even if I didn't know the language."
This is "Svarta Elva." Teer, Wilson and Readling shuffle through stacks of papers and scan them. Holt, sitting behind his banjo in a chair between Readling and Teer, looks up: "This is the three solos song, right?"
"And how do we do this again? You, me, Teer?" he asks, pointing to Wilson, trying to nail the order.
"Yeah, that's right," Wilson says, sitting on the edge of a stuffed armchair on the other end of the band's new rehearsal space, built by Readling--a carpenter and furniture maker when he's not playing music--behind his house on Van Dyke Avenue in Raleigh.
They make it through the song, and the commentary begins.
"Is three solos right?" asks Fjeld, who has been in town for less than 24 hours. This is his second practice.
"Yeah, maybe just those two guys? Banjo first, and then mandolin?"
"Yeah, that would be a nice pair," says Wilson, relieved to get out of solo duty.
They head back into the bridge, straight into the solos, Holt staring down his frets as Fjeld--sitting on one side of the space, a microphone leaning in toward his face, three feet away--nods along, chewing Swedish tobacco and flicking fast chords on a Martin D-18. Teer takes his mandolin solo, humming, hawing, clutching at the waist, smiling wildly. The solos end, and they sail into the cadenza.
Immediately, Fjeld has another suggestion, and--this time--he wants Teer's vocal help. "Can you join in on that last note?"
They try it.
Fjeld grins: "Maybe not."
The room erupts, and Fjeld is the last one to realize that he may have insulted Teer.
"Oh, no, no. There's not anything wrong with it, but I think it may be nice for you just to sing on that song in general, but on that last note, maybe it's nice if it's just me, you know?"
"So you want me to sing on the chorus?"
"Absolutely, please. Sing some harmonies on that chorus."
This is how it works. For weeks, everyone in CCL has been listening to Fjeld's work and scribbling down ideas; when he arrived, they knew the songs and already had annotated versions of most of them. But the delivery is in the details: These are Fjeld's songs, but they're mutable. He decides to drop a sequence of F and C chords leading out of the final chorus and into the last verse of one tune. They discuss the idea, try it once, agree and jot down the deletion on wrinkled pages of notes. Before they try it one last time, Wilson turns to his laptop, perched on a nearby coffee table, hits a button and nods his green light.
"Yeah, it's better like that," Readling assures Fjeld. "It just makes the ending more powerful."
Fjeld is enthusiastic about molding his own work to fit the talents of his new backing band. Speaking of the band, he's thrilled to be back in this setting, working with a group of guys and ironing out songs outside of a solo context. Fjeld started playing guitar in 1961 at age 14, strapping a cheap pickup inside of a basic acoustic guitar and plugging it into a tube radio. His first electric guitar--a red Fender Mustang that his dad spray painted green and that he still owns--came three years later, three years before he formed his first band, Jonas Fjeld's Rock 'n' Rolf. Before Rock 'n' Rolf's last show, they decided to paint their faces (Fjeld sported a Norwegian flag) and go theatric.
The gimmick worked, and what was to be their finale turned into a catapult for a string of high-profile bookings in Norway. By the third show, they had been signed to Polygram, a deal that lasted 10 years. They toured from the bottom of the country to the top, through the middle and back again--several times. In 1977, they dropped the paint and headed to Nashville, recording two albums at J.J. Cale's Crazy Mama's studio with producer Audie Ashworth.
"J.J. Cale was a big influence on me. I met him when he was playing in Oslo in '76," remembers Fjeld of the Nashville legend and loner. "I got in contact with him because I asked a simple question: 'Can we come over in your studio and record?' He said sure, and we can produce."
He backed Eric Andersen on a radio show in Norway in 1980, but he didn't see him again until 1990 in an Oslo guitar store. Andersen invited Fjeld to New York to record some bonus tracks for his album Stages. Danko was the session's bass player. They traveled to Woodstock together to play a one-off with Andersen and to spend the night at Danko's house. They were up all night, harmonizing and working on songs. A Norwegian Grammy, four stars in Rolling Stone and one more album followed.
But this is the seventh year that Fjeld has done a post-Christmas run at the Drammen Theater. For each show, he's been accompanied by a few guest musicians. This year, he wanted to get back to his roots. He first fell in love with music when he heard his father's copy of Gene Autry's take on "Mister and Mississippi," and he missed America.
"I twisted my head to what in the hell I wanted to do this year, and I just started thinking it has been so many years since I played with some Americans. Since Rick died, I've hardly been over here because I got small kids, two kids. I've kind of been in the babysitting business," Fjeld says, dipping into two pitchers of Bass Ale with Holt and Teer after a stop at The Roast Grill. They're waiting on Johnny Andreassen--a Norwegian journalist who arrived in America a day after Fjeld to do a story on CCL for the biggest newspaper in Norway--to finish buying records at Nice Price Books on Hillsborough Street.
He called his best friend, Hatch Show Print manager Jim Sherraden in Nashville, and Sherraden directed him to CCL. Fjeld immediately e-mailed the band, who assumed it was a joke until they noticed the Danko connection and until Sherraden ensured the band that this was the opportunity they needed.
"You get a lot of e-mails from overseas about lottery winnings, so we didn't know," Wilson explains to Fjeld with a wry smile.
"At the very least, we knew Rick wouldn't play with somebody that we wouldn't appreciate musically," Holt elaborates. "Rick Danko solidified you for sure."
When they play in Drammen, Fjeld will join them for five CCL originals. They're working on plans now to back him on his next album, due early next year.
"I'm honored to play with you," he says, smiling at Holt. "This is meant to be a happening. They're my guests. This will be wonderful."