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Interview: Chatham County Line’s Chandler Holt on new album, touring with Steve Martin and 2019 plans

We caught up with the bluegrass quartet’s banjo player ahead of the release of their new covers record.

Chatham County Line
Credit: Jeff Fasano

Originally from Raleigh, North Carolina, Chatham County Line formed in 1999 and have rapidly become one of the most popular bluegrass bands around.

The quartet released their debut album Wildwood in 2010 and have since gone on to record a further six LPs, as well as performing all across North America and Europe. Their latest album, Sharing The Covers, is due for release on 8th March.

Ahead of the album’s release I spoke to Chandler Holt, the band’s banjo player, about making the new record, their upcoming tour with Steve Martin, plans for 2019 and more.

Your new album is coming out next month – what can you tell us about it?

Yeah, basically it’s called Sharing The Covers and it’s sort of our hilarious spin on a pun about cover songs. So it’s a collection of other people’s tunes. Basically on all our records previously we’ve had nothing but our own music on them, and that’s kind of what we’re known for with songwriting. So we thought it’d be fun to just go in the studio. We basically went in for two days and just cut everything live, and singing and all – very minimal production value. We worked with a great engineer that captured it all really easily.

We just kind of had a blast doing it. Just ticked a bunch of tunes that we had either kind of played once or twice on stage or just kind of messed around with for fun, and then just added a few others. You know, we’re kind of known as a bluegrass band but we tried to really keep that music sort of outside of that realm, so there’s John Lennon and Beck and Tom Petty and a couple of country classics and a tune from Wilco and James Hunter and all that kind of stuff. So definitely just a bunch of our heroes outside of the bluegrass genre, to say the least. We thought it’d be fun to do some of those tunes.

Was it difficult to choose the songs you wanted to cover for this record?

Yeah, this record was the total opposite of difficult. It was seamless. I mean, it literally was just sitting around with microphones on everything and ‘hey, let’s just run that tune and see what happens’. That’s basically how the record feels. It’s nice and loose and fun and there’s no pressure on anybody to do anything that they didn’t wanna do. We’re real happy with it. I think it sounds real fun and I think the people that are already our fans, it’ll be a really fun kind of treat. For people that haven’t heard us, it’ll kind of be a doorway in to what we’re about.

Why did you feel this was the right time for a covers album?

Well, a few reasons. You know, we haven’t made a new record in a couple of years, and we’ve got a huge batch of new tunes that we’re gonna turn around and probably put out an original record of music in the next six to eight months following this. So we kind of thought it’d just be fun. We were actually in the studio doing pre-production on a bunch of these new original tunes, and we kind of just decided to dedicate two days to just make this record.

You know, we talked with friends and our record label about it, and our record label’s like, ‘man, that would be so cool if y’all did that before the next original record’. They’ve heard us do a lot of these songs live and they’re like, ‘man, people love that stuff, y’all should do it’. At first we were kind of like, ‘yeah, it’s cheating to do other people’s songs’, but then we were just like, ‘man, let’s just make it fun and if people like it great, if they don’t we’ll have another record coming out soon anyway’.

Again it’s just nothing about this project had any real super-seriousness about it, which is sort of refreshing. Working on your own material you get kind of tied in to the ego and all that kind of stuff, and it was just like, ‘man we love these guys, let’s just pay tribute and do this for fun’.

Do you have any favourite songs on this album?

Ah, that’s a good question. Personally I really like Watching The Wheels by John Lennon. That one was probably the one that came out of left field the most. We’ve never really played that song live, and Dave [Wilson, the band’s vocalist/guitarist] kind of there that out there. That one we probably spent the most time on, like figuring out who was gonna play the piano melody that he plays on there. I’m the banjo player so I was sort of the last choice to do that, but then I kind of figured out this way to play it and it instantly kind of became really fun. So that was really fun for me. I love that tune, I absolutely love John Lennon, and I think Dave and John [Teer] really nailed the vocal aspect of it. So that was cool.

I mean, other than that I really love the James Hunter song [People Gonna Talk]. I kind of discovered that first record he put out when we were in the UK and stumbled in a music store. I saw that sitting somewhere and I was like, ‘man, this just kind of looks cool’ and the guy at the store was like, ‘oh we got it where you can sample listen to it over there’ and I was like, ‘all right, what the hell, I’ll go over there and listen to it’ and it was just kind of like ‘wow, this record is amazing’. We probably played that record more than we’ve played any record in the band, which most people wouldn’t think for a string band we’d be listening to this English dude with a bunch of horns and stuff [laughs], bringing that kind of Sam Cooke vibe back. So that was really cool to do that. That would be sort of a standout track.

You mentioned this was recorded as live and with minimal production. Is that a typical approach for you as a band?

Well, we normally record pretty live and without a ton of tricks, but normally we kind of separate out some of the vocals and maybe a few of the solos. We were working with this new engineer that just gets such great sounds right up at the top, and I think when you hear this record it kind of jumps out at you right away. I think what we immediately realised is when we started tracking Dave was like, ‘man, screw this, we are not gonna make this a tedious process. If you can’t sing it live, if you can’t play it live, then it’s not getting put on the record’ and it just kind of immediately upped everyone’s game, like, ‘let’s just do this’. So it was sort of in the spirit of how we’ve done our past records, but we really went all in. Truly nothing was done post-production, it just all happened in the room, and I think you can really feel it and hear it. So I think that is gonna be our goal moving forward. We’ve been doing this for 15 years and we can do it now [laughs] so there’s that.

Is there a secret to how you’ve kept things fresh as a band over such a long career?

You know, I don’t know. We get asked this question a lot and you’ll get a different answer from everybody in every year. I think it has a lot to do with we all respect each other a lot and in some ways we’re not too close to each other. You know, John and I are really close, Greg and Dave are really close friends. We hang out outside the band but we’re not like too tied to each other in some ways. So there’s something to that. And I think we’ve never really broken to be a hugely big band that brings in all those problems of having major success and money.

We did the Jools Holland show years ago and that was probably as close as we got to like really busting through, and it was a thing in the UK especially for a little while following that. But when you read every band biography once the money starts rolling in and the fame starts knocking on the door big time is when the cracks start appearing. So it’s like we’ve always been just subtly kind of moving upward without just skyrocketing. I think that’s a great thing. We have very steady lives and we’re in a stable situation and we do this because we love to do it and we’re not doing it solely for the money. Like obviously we need money and all that kind of thing, but we have people that love what we do and they keep wanting us to do it, and I think we kind of feed off that. So I’d say it probably has mostly to do with that.

For this album you went back to where you recorded the first album – was that quite strange or was it like you’d never been away?

Yeah, it wasn’t strange at all, because that studio’s really close to where we live and I think all of us have done session work in that studio for other people over the years. So it’s not like we’ve been away from there for 10 or 15 years. We’ve revolved in and out of there. So yeah, I’d say it’s very comfortable. For me personally I’m not really hung up on where I make music as long as the guy running the controls knows what the hell he’s doing or she’s doing. So you know, it was pretty seamless.

You’re going out on tour soon with Steve Martin and Martin Short – how did that come about? 

Yeah, it’s a really neat thing that just kind of fell in our laps. I think basically he’s been working with the Steel Canyon Ranchers exclusively for 10 years or more, and I think they wanted to shed some of the workload to focus on what they’re doing, because their career has risen so much due to playing with him. They’re a great band and people are really catching on to it. I think it’s that gig is kind of getting handed out to a few different artists along the way, and thankfully our name just got tossed in a hat somewhere. We met Steve and just kind of hung out one day and played some tunes and he dug it, so it just felt good. We’re really stoked to be getting the call. He and Marty are both just super-sweet guys and absolutely hysterical. So yeah, it’s a thrill. I don’t know exactly fully why we got the call but we did and that’s that.

What have you learnt from touring over the years?

Oh man, there’s so many things. I mean, just musically, there’s no better place to hone in what you do night after night, seeing people either get excited or bored to death by what you’re doing. I would say life-wise, there’s politically a lot going on in this world right now. I think for me I can say just meeting people from every corner of America, especially in getting to go to a lot of places in Europe and just seeing how things are in different countries. Again, our fan base isn’t separated by politics or money or any other kind of background. We see people from everywhere, and when you meet people and understand the universal way in which people are it kind of changes you. So I think it just helps you understand that largely we’re all trying to do the same thing in this world, which is just get by. We want our kids to grow up safe and we want to all fall in love and have friends, and if we get sick we wanna get better and that kind of stuff. So that would be my kind of short answer to that. I don’t know. I think a lot’s been written about the more you travel the more you understand other people and that grows your empathy. So I think that is easily the biggest cog in that wheel.

Has your approach to writing as a band changed since you’ve been working together? And has anything from this album fed into writing your own material?

Yeah, I’d say our process has changed a bit. The covers record was such an anomaly because we didn’t have to write anything, and we had played a number of the songs. But aside from that we just know each other’s tendencies really well. Dave is the primary writer and he’s really good at writing and having an understanding of what every person can do.

It’s great working with Dave because he’s very open to people contributing to his songs. He’s not much of a co-writer, like you don’t really sit in a room  with him and write a lyric together, but he’s very into input and very willing to change things if they helps songs get better. I feel like when he has a great idea we always have worked well to make that happen and we all want to see his songs succeed.

I’ve kind of become the secondary writer in the band which has been really fun, and Dave has been very much a champion of me as a writer and a singer which is great. I think a lot of bands you wouldn’t get that opportunity because it’d be seen as stepping on the lead guy’s toes and that kind of thing, but Dave almost kind of welcomes it. Like, ‘man, we need some other songs, we need another voice, what do you got?’ So that’s fun. We just all wanna make good music and that’s really all our process is about. Greg and John can play a lot of different instruments and we’re into kind of having those other flavours and it not just being kind of a string band thing only, so that’s always a good tool to have there to say the least.

What does the rest of 2019 look like for you?

I mean, a lot. We have a new management agency that’s really opening doors for us. They’re kind of taking a lot of tedious stuff off our plates. So this year is gonna be incredibly busy. We’ve got a bunch of great festivals and the whole record and this thing with Steve and Marty – we’re doing like eight shows with them so far, there might be a few more. And then next year we’re just gonna release that record that I talked about, the original music record, either late this year or early next year, and just kind of go all in on that. I’m actually standing in a studio right now in Asheville, North Carolina, that we’re actually recording in with Judy Collins, which is really cool…

Oh wow!

Yeah, this thing just randomly fell in our laps. I don’t wanna say too much about that, it’s not a secret but we’re gonna record it and see what happens. We might do some shows with her late in the year and kind of just see what the response is to this. She’s kind of friends with this Norwegian artist that we’ve worked with a lot in the past and has covered one of his songs, and she kind of started hearing about our collaborations together and was like, ‘man, I really wanna do a record with this guy and have you guys be a part of this’ and we just hashed it out. I mean, when I get off the phone I’m literally gonna walk in the room and sit down and we’re gonna write this record and record it next week. So there is a whole lot going on in Chatham County Line’s world in the next few years to say the least.

Are there any plans to come back to the UK any time soon?

Yeah, for sure. I don’t know that we’re gonna get there this year unfortunately, but that could change any minute now. The UK’s been so great to us. I was just talking with Judy’s music director – Judy just got back from the UK, she did 10 shows over there and literally flew to Asheville where we are now from London like two nights ago. And I think we might come back with Judy late in the year to do some shows with her, and if not at the latest we’ll be over in the UK sometime in the UK before the summer hits 2019. But I say that, who knows what’s gonna happen? [laughs]

Chatham County Line’s new album, Sharing The Covers, is out on 8th March on Yep Roc Records.

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