Autumn, the new album from the Americana/bluegrass band Chatham County Line on Yep Roc Records, hits a sweet spot: laid-back sound and feel, but focused songwriting and powerful playing. Even the multi-part vocal harmonies for which the group is known feel organic, in part because they’re not pushed super-high in the mix. Nothing here sounds like anybody is trying too hard.
With their folky rhythms and melodies, many of these 11 songs sound like they’ve been dug out of the root-shot soil of an ideal, loamy America rather than written (as I presume they were) in our new century of doping scandals and Donald Trump.
The album rocks easily from groove to groove and topic to topic, with an emphasis on cautionary tales: the soft intensity of the ballad “Jackie Boy”; the chunky piano of the honky-tonkin’ “All That’s Left,” with its imagery of a faded inscription on a roadside memorial; the racing banjo-picking of the bluegrass instrumental “Bull City Strut,” with its unexpected minor chord; the mythological metaphor of “Siren Song.”
Keening vocals temper even the up-tempo songs with a twist of darkness, and not only in the shadowy songs like “Dark River,” which evokes a wraith-like boogeyman conjured by a mother anxious to put the fear of God (or of something) into her boy. They invest even simple material, like the dirge-like “Moving Pictures of My Mind,” with raw pain, the way a great violinist or cellist can turn a wordless tune into a tragic narrative. The tenor vocals on “Moving Pictures” and the poignant, gently bubbling opening track “You Are My Light” bring to mind, just a little, a slightly gravelly version of the sweet tones of Marty Balin.
“It’s so easy, ’cause you don’t have to try hard to please me at all,” sings the narrator of the two-beat jumper “If I Had My Way.” Chatham County Line’s musicians sure do make it sound easy, with top-notch musicianship from top to bottom without the need to showcase virtuosity for its own sake. Confident multi-instrumentalists who also know the importance of space and silence, they’ve come up with an album warm and redolent as a friendly firepit at the edge of the woods behind your house.
Don’t have those things? Who does anymore? Instead we have Chatham County Line’s Autumn, and a fine season it is.