When is a bluegrass band not a bluegrass band anymore? It's a question Raleigh's Chatham County Line has wrestled with for some time now. On its self-titled debut album thirteen years ago, the quintet maintained some strong ties to traditional bluegrass despite its overt newgrass leanings. And though the band's roots do still show themselves once in a while, as on the pickin' party instrumental "Bull City Strut," from the newly released Autumn, it has been edging further away from old-school style with each album.
On its eighth LP, the band continues to utilize the traditional bluegrass tool kit of acoustic guitar, banjo, mandolin, and upright bass in service of an ethos that has more to do with the singer-songwriter realm than with Bill Monroe or Flatt & Scruggs. Gillian Welch and Neil Young are among the artists with whom CCL feels kinship, and Autumn's nuanced songwriting makes that connection quite clear.
The album opens with "You Are My Light," a churning minor-key tune that seems to be an ode to the Almighty, setting a spiritual tone straight out of the gate. But the snaky, bluesy "Bon Ton Roulet" pretty quickly shifts back to a more earthly plane. Guitarist Dave Wilson and mandolin player John Teer swap succinct, lyrical solos on "Siren Song."
On "Jackie Boy," Wilson frames his warm murmur with spectral guitar arpeggios, with some equally haunting vocal harmonies popping up to add a dash of color. The overall effect ends up sounding closer to Fleet Foxes than anything under the bluegrass banner. With its harmonica shadings and straight-up folk-rock feel, "All That's Left" could have come off a seventies Bob Dylan album.
Chatham County Line's poetic side emerges on "Dark Rider," an ominous tune about a grim reaper figure. An anxious-sounding Wilson sings, "In a three-piece suit as black as the coal, on the turn of the hour, he'll come for your soul." But by the time the album closes on the piano-laced barroom stomper "Show Me the Door," a decidedly more hospitable atmosphere is at work. So does it all add up to bluegrass, newgrass, Americana, or something else? Chatham County Line proves that none of that really matters—just get busy tucking into Autumn's manifold pleasures instead.