Indie kids are finally tuning in the Grateful Dead. At least, that's what the media claims. The August issue of Relix sports a vintage pic of Jerry for its cover story, as well as the dubious claim "Rock's Original Hipster." Before that, Arthur and The Fader ran similar spreads, both of which contain testimonials from modern underground heavies coming out of the vault, so to speak. Even Pitchfork, indie's ruling tastemaker, has jumped into the ring, with writer Mark Richardson putting together a dancing-bear primer for all those Arcade Fire fans apparently clamoring to hear the definitive versions of "Scarlet Begonias" and "New Potato Caboose."
These articles zero in on one of indie's more recent subgenres - that odd little thing called freak-folk. This, of course, is a total head-scratcher. Artists like Animal Collective, Akron/Family, Devendra Banhart and Vetiver sound far more like the Beach Boys and acid-fairy-turned-glam-rocker Marc Bolan than they do rock's longest, strangest trip.
Absent from all these discussions is the all-acoustic quartet Chatham County Line. Although the band plays Americana, not freak-folk, no other group of the past five years has forged a more distinct fusion of West Coast country-rock and the kind of hippie bluegrass the Dead and Garcia's myriad side projects explored on their definitive albums: American Beauty, Workingman's Dead, Europe '72, Garcia and Old & in the Way.
"I really didn't discover the bluegrass style of music until college," explains guitar player and lead vocalist Dave Wilson, phoning from his home in Raleigh, North Carolina. "I listened to the Dead and figured out that Jerry Garcia played banjo." The group's just returned from a tour of the U.K. in support of its latest full-length, the Yep Roc-released IV. "We feel like we are ambassadors for that kind of music," he adds. "We figure that with our younger audience, maybe we can let them know about it."
Why these four Dead-inspired ambassadors were passed over has to do with prejudices seeded deep within the indie milieu, which nowadays has more to do with style than whether or not a band is actually signed to an independent label (Chatham County Line is). Like its forefathers, punk and hardcore, indie-rock believes do-it-yourself amateurism is the one true path to artistic expression. This automatically relegates Chatham County Line to the scene's margins. Sure, the band cites Wilco as a key influence, but the members most resemble your prototypical bluegrass outfit in that they're professional musicians - all strings, no drums - skilled at tight ensemble playing. "We take some of the great building blocks of what bluegrass was, scoot them over and try to make our own building from them," he says.
Yet too much can be made of the chops. With obvious help from longtime producer Chris Stamey, co-founder of jangle-pop pioneers the dB's, Wilson and company have gradually evolved into composers capable of some sharp hooks. On its best songs, ethereal ballads like "Chip of a Star," "Speed of the Whippoorwill" and "One More Minute," Chatham County Line tempers its musicianship with gorgeous, simple melodies, as well as a love for those supple silences lurking in between the notes. It's the same balancing act that made the Dead so unique in the early '70s. Here were dudes who really knew how to jam, yet they kept their noodling in check to write utterly pristine pastoral hymns like "Ripple" and "Brokedown Palace."
More important than musicianship (and far more contentious) is the question of soul. And this is where Chatham County Line most echoes the Dead, a band Etta James once called America's "baddest" blues band (at least, that's the wacky legend). Freak-folkies might dress like the hippies of yore, but their peppy campfire sing-alongs are far removed from what makes American music so unique: the volatile intersection of black and white that has created everything from bluegrass to rockabilly to acid rock. Sure, a beard like Devendra Banhart might bop and chirp, but he never ever grooves, much less swings. That's not the case with C.C.L., especially in the live setting. Adding elements of gospel, Southern soul and classic honky-tonk, the group pounds the floor and sways in front of a single microphone, crooning get-down boogie, with vintage titles like "Let It Rock" and "Whipping Boy."
Of course, as native Carolinians, Chatham County Line can lay direct claim to a tradition that the Dead could tap only from the other side of the country.
Translation: There's nobody more soulful than a Southerner. "There's a lot of emotion that goes with this music," says Wilson, laughing at the notion, yet slyly giving it credence. "No matter what kind of music I play, I just feel it from the inside out. You've just got to be completely glued to what you're doing."
Pigpen would be so proud.