On their previous four albums, North Carolinian quartet Chatham County Line has proven themselves one of just a handful of bands with both the unimpeachable technical skill and the contemporary point of view necessary to keep bluegrass music relevant as more than just a niche market. Their latest effort, Wildwood, stands as a minor disappointment, then, because it doesn’t offer anything new to advance either the band’s career narrative or their genre of choice. It falls victim to the same Catch-22 as Sharon Jones & the DAP-Kings’s I Learned the Hard Way: Chatham County Line has already proven that they can make a modern bluegrass record better than just about anyone, but they haven’t proven they can do much else.
Wildwood isn’t even the slightest of departures from Speed of the Whippoorwill or IV, and it’s a perfectly fine record on its own modest terms. The title track boasts heavy reverb in its recording that favorably recalls the recorded-in-a-grain-silo production on My Morning Jacket’s It Still Moves, while “Saturdays & Sundays” boasts an effortlessly engaging, buoyant melody. Frontman and principal songwriter Dave Wilson can still turn a pretty fantastic phrase when he wants to, with “Crop Comes In” drawing a haunting and effective parallel between a failed relationship and waiting for a seasonal harvest. “Ghost of Woody Guthrie” is perhaps a bit pretentious (“The ghost of Woody Guthrie came to me/And told me to write this song” is a hard sell as a hook, especially for a band whose aspirations and accomplishments are relatively humble), but the rest of the songs are on point.
There’s also no faulting the band’s performances. Banjoist Chandler Holt and mandolinist John Teer remain two of country music’s most unheralded musicians, and bassist Greg Readling and guest percussionist Zeke Hutchins give the songs strong rhythm sections. There simply isn’t anything innovative to songs like “Out of the Running” or the dirge-like “Porcelain Doll.” And that’s where Chatham County Line gets into trouble. They’re not a traditional bluegrass band like, say, Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver or Dailey & Vincent, nor do they push themselves in any of the more progressive ways that bands like Punch Brothers or Megafaun do. An album like Wildwood leaves Chatham County Line in something of a no-man’s land. And for a band that seems content to stay in one spot, that doesn’t seem like a great place to be.