Bluegrass isn't an especially angsty medium, at least not in its traditional form; the music is usually too speedy and upbeat to communicate an inward gaze into the abyss, and while a blue mood sometimes informs the songs, the sadness invariably sounds organic, rooted in tragic circumstances rather than a dark night of the soul. Chatham County Line are not a traditional bluegrass quartet, even though they often sound like one, and their outlook is what sets them apart as much as their music. This is particularly evident on their sixth studio album, Tightrope, where inward-gazing tunes like "Final Reward" find them stretching the thematic and musical boundaries of the bluegrass genre; while the lyrics deal with the legacy of the Civil War, the narrative is stylized and poetic in a way the average old-time tune is not, and the arrangement, with piano, steel guitar, and brass added to the usual guitars, banjo, mandolin, and fiddle, lends the song a potent atmospheric tone that's thoughtful and striking, reinforced by the echoey production. "Final Reward" is the most ambitious track on Tightrope, but even the most conventional numbers sound thoughtful, imaginative, and personal, such as the bittersweet love songs "The Traveler" and "Love I Found" and the affecting portrait of a girl on the dangerous edge of adulthood, "Sixteen Years." The men of Chatham County Line are all gifted instrumentalists, with the chops and the good judgment to make the most of their gifts, and whether they're making their easy way though a crowd-pleaser like "Will You Still Love Me" or exploring more difficult territory on "Ships at Sea," Tightrope shows they're one of America's best acoustic groups, able to learn from the past while striking out on a path that's theirs alone. Between the fine ensemble playing, the excellent songwriting, and the subtle but superb studio technique, Tightrope is a high-water mark for Chatham County Line, which is no small statement given the strength of their work to date.
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AllMusic Review by Mark Deming