Chandler Holt’s bluegrass and banjo obsession started with a cassette.
Long before he had an awareness of anything bluegrass music-related, he was a typical music fan absorbing what most young music fans pick up on. Led Zeppelin, The Beatles and Black Sabbath paved the way for The Grateful Dead and Phish, which paved the way for jazz, eventually opening doors to cosmic country and roots music.
But it was one cassette played in the car of John Teer, Holt’s future bandmate, that changed everything. The exact details of the cassette remain hazy in Holt’s memory; maybe it was the Tony Rice Unit, or it could have been something by The Bluegrass Album Band, which features guitar player Rice playing with banjo player J.D. Crowe. Details aside, it was that cassette that led to Holt picking up the banjo and pursuing playing in a band, which eventually led to the formation of Chatham County Line, the Raleigh, North Carolina-based quartet that will be in Durango on Tuesday at the Henry Strater Theatre.
“The cassette had Rice and Crowe on it, and that’s all that mattered to me at that point,” Holt said. “Teer said, ‘Man, you’ve got to hear this,’ and we’re riding around in his car and I’m hearing J.D. Crowe, and the next day, I bought a banjo at age 20. It went from zero to full-fledge obsession in one day.”
Holt and Teer eventually met bandmates Dave Wilson and Greg Readling, who had been playing in a country-rock band. But the acoustic music jam on the front porch mentality, matched with the stellar and picturesque songwriting of Wilson, became the dominant ideal, leading to Chatham County Line.
Now nine albums in, which includes 2019’s “Sharing The Covers,” an album of cover songs from Wilco, Tom Petty, John Lennon and the Ventures, is just more proof of the band’s greatness. The covers album reveals a great taste in music with the talent to put their own stamp on timeless songs. But the overall package you get with Chatham County Line is a sublime dose of original roots music. Adept at bringing you to tears or ramping up your heart rate, they’ll break your heart with a ballad one minute and throw down an up-tempo, driven by a fiddle and banjo tune the next all while skirting pure bluegrass classification. Tossed into the genre but straying enough in their sound to not be labeled traditional, it’s acoustic rock ’n’ roll via bluegrass instrumentation.
“Ten years ago, I would have said we’re definitely not (bluegrass) because there was still enough traditional bluegrass or whatever you want to call it out there and we were outliers,” Holt said. “Now, I feel like it has moved so far the other way that people look at us and the way we sing and the way we play, we’re not really jammy at all, we’re not traditional, but it feels more traditional now. I don’t know, I’m just going to let people make their own interpretation. We certainly have lots of pieces of the puzzle that identify what we do.”
The band is in a good spot. They’re consistent with the release of a new record every two to three years, with a new one due out in 2020, and manage to keep busy with shows in America and overseas. They’re a working band that Holt conveys with a business-as-usual mentality.
“Just keep the foot down on the gas, as they say. We’ve been slow a little bit over the past few years with families and kids and that sort of stuff, and we’ve emerged out of that labyrinth of confusion of life and are looking into just playing, having fun, writing and that kind of thing. And touring more. That’s where we are,” Holt said.
Bryant Liggett is a freelance writer and KDUR station manager. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.