The Triangle region of North Carolina is known for producing bands that successfully mess with various styles of roots music. Chapel Hill’s Southern Culture on the Skids has been filling venues for more than three decades with an irreverent brand of hillbilly rock. Squirrel Nut Zippers was a huge part of the rowdy swing revival of the late 90s, and Ryan Adams got his first notice in the Raleigh-bred, pioneering alt-country act Whiskeytown. This fall three steadfast bands from the area that carry the same spirit are releasing new albums.
Four-piece string band Chatham County Line formed in Raleigh back in 1999. In the years since, the band has accrued a small but dedicated loyal following across the country and even beyond, in Europe, where the group completed several successful tours backing Norwegian folk hero Jonas Fjeld. The quartet is quite captivating in the live setting, clad in close-to-matching suits and crowded around a single mic, like a shaggy Del McCoury Band, though its music only partially incorporates traditional bluegrass.
Main singer and songwriter Dave Wilson has an edgy tenor that’s more Jeff Tweedy than Bill Monroe, but his voice is often softened when placed in a cradle of strings. His lyrics range from the endearingly sentimental to the bitingly topical. His best song to date is arguably “Birmingham Jail,” from the band’s 2008 album IV, a scathing recount of the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in 1963 that killed four young girls. There’s nothing quite as effective on the group’s new album, Autumn, which comes out September 2 on the venerable North Carolina independent label Yep Roc Records, but Wilson is still churning out great tunes.
Opener “You Are My Light” is a minor-key confessional about leaning on a lover in times of darkness, while “Rock in the River” is a reflection of one that got away through gently cascading banjo rolls and some trickles of saloon piano. More upbeat moments come in the bluesy strut of the rollicking send-off “Show Me the Door” and the speedy newgrass instrumental “Bull City Strut,” a reminder that crisp chops are another ingredient in the band’s longstanding success.
Not around quite as long, Mandolin Orange is an acoustic duo featuring partners Andrew Marlin and Emily Frantz, who met at a Chapel Hill bluegrass jam in 2009. The couple has familiar two-hearts-beat-as-one country chemistry that can lean towards the classic approach of Johnny and June Carter Cash or the more ethereal space of Dave Rawlings and Gillian Welch, all in service to a dusty sound that draws from Appalachian mountain songs and vintage lonesome ballads. Throughout the group’s fifth studio album, Blindfaller (out September 30, also on Yep Roc), Marlin and Frantz enlist a full backing band to help fill out their own rotations on guitar, mandolin, and fiddle. The extra personnel fortunately doesn’t hinder the casual intimacy the pair usually carries into live shows; in fact, gentle pedal steel and woozy drums enhance the sadness in the heartbreak duet “Picking Up Pieces.”
Marlin is the duo’s primary songwriter, and his voice has a deep longing that casts a slight shadow of melancholy over most Mandolin Orange songs. With his lyrics placed in a traditional context, the millennial from a liberal college town can sound like a protest singer from an older generation when he expresses weariness over the current state of affairs. In the sunny bluegrass hopper “Gospel Shoes,” he sings about discontent for politicians who exploit religion: “Freedom was a simple word, so reverent and true/ A long time ago, it meant the right to choose/ Who you love and how to live, but now it’s so misused/ And twisted by the politics of men in gospel shoes.”
Another deep thinker from down the road in Durham is M.C. Taylor, who delivers his songs through his cast-rotating indie alt-country-soul outfit Hiss Golden Messenger. Taylor, who got his start playing in punk bands, has released five albums as Hiss Golden Messenger since 2008, but his widespread breakout didn’t come until 2014’s Lateness of Dancers, an effort that tapped into gospel-rock grooves reminiscent of Bob Dylan’s 80s spiritual works like Slow Train Coming.
A similar vibe pervades Taylor’s upcoming sixth album, Heart Like a Levee, which will be released on October 7, as the tunesmith grapples with shifts in his life. In the past two years he’s been able to tour across the country, opening for the likes of Dawes and the Tallest Man on Earth, but he often feels guilty about leaving his wife and two kids back at home; as he put it in a statement released on the latest effort, “wrenched apart by my responsibilities to my family and to my music.”
The album’s opener, “Biloxi,” deals with the tension right away, as Taylor recalls his own youth as a loner while watching a crowd have fun at his own child’s sixth birthday party. The introspection, though, comes through a jubilant folk-rock highway song with a chorus (“It’s hard, Lord/Lord it’s hard,”) that sounds much more uplifting than its message. Throughout the record Taylor is joined by some of the Triangle’s best indie roots players, including Brad and Phil Cook of Megafaun and Grammy-nominated Americana songstress Tift Merritt, who, along with fellow back-up singer Alexandra Sauser-Monnig, helps sweeten the raw, intimate title track—a blatant front-porch lament on leaving home. Taylor’s heart may be full of emotional conflict, but it continues to let him spill out pure music.