HOME ON THE RANGE: Bluegrass is in the blood for the pickers of N.C. outfit Balsam Range
By Steve Wildsmith (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Like the men and women who play it, bluegrass is inextricably tied to the land.
The rolling twang of the banjo, the mournful sigh of the fiddle, the high and lonesome call of the mandolin: Together, those instruments make music that celebrates Southern ground. From the toil of plowing rocky fields to the blood spilled in countless battles to the raising of cabins that provide shelter for generations of families, that soil is as much a part of its native sons and daughters as the blood that runs in their veins. And when they play the music that gives it voice, they do so with an authenticity that’s can’t be duplicated.
“It really comes down to it being authentic,” said Darren Nicholson, the mandolin player for North Carolina-based bluegrass band Balsam Range. “It’s like when George Jones sings a drinking song — it’s makes more of an impact because he knows about it. The music in Western North Carolina, and to a larger degree the South, is a cultural thing.
“I remember growing up, every Friday and Saturday night, there were 10 or 15 people in our house making music. We would move all the furniture back, and it was a jam. People would dance — clogging and mountain-style dance. And there are a lot of schools in the mountains where they teach that as part of the curriculum. It’s a way of life and a culture, and we’ve seen that spread out from the living room and into the bluegrass and Americana scenes.
“That’s why everybody is so friendly at these big festivals,” he added. “We’re all kind of like a big family.”
That kinship is the driving force behind Balsam Range, which kicks off WDVX-FM’s “World Class Bluegrass” concert series on Saturday night in downtown Knoxville. Nicholson and his bandmates — bass player/resonator guitarist/lead vocalist Tim Surrett, fiddler and tenor vocalist Buddy Melton, guitarist/vocalist Caleb Smith and banjo player Marc Pruett — all come from similar backgrounds, and all came to the Balsam Range table with plenty of experience beneath their belts.
Nicholson grew up in Jackson County, N.C., listening to the Grand Ole Opry and developing an affinity for bluegrass and traditional country. He received his first mandolin when he was 16, dabbled with it for a year and put it aside for another before getting serious at 18. How serious? A year and a half later, he was on the stage at the Grand Ole Opry with fellow bluegrass musician Alecia Nugent. He was originally brought along as a guest of the band, but when a position opened up, Nugent asked him to join full time.
“I was right out of high school, and I thought, why not?” Nicholson said. “That was the time in my life when I could go and see the world and experience music. I hadn’t been playing the mandolin that long, and I remember going down to the Grand Ole Opry and seeing all of these great players, but instead of leaving there defeated because I knew I wasn’t at that level, it just inspired me. I thought, ‘If I’m going to come down here and embarrass myself, I’d better practice.’”
He did, and in so doing proved himself as an invaluable member of Nugent’s band. When he came off the road in 2007, he recorded a solo album, and the genesis of Balsam Range was in that work.
“Buddy and I did records about the same time, and Marc and Tim both played on the same records,” Nicholson said. “We found ourselves in the studio with them; Tim had come off the road about the same time I did; and Marc had been with Ricky Skaggs but was playing with a local band. We found ourselves at home in Haywood County at the same time.
“Here we were, five guys who all lived three or four minutes from each other. It was just so rare to have that kind of talent nearby — before, I had been in a situation where I was driving from Canton (N.C.) to Nashville every week to meet the band. So we all decided to get together and have a jam session at my house, and it went pretty good.”
From the beginning, Nicholson said, Balsam Range felt different. For one, the talent of his bandmates was equal to that of the players he was driving all the way to Nashville to meet on a weekly basis. The bluegrass community around Waynesville, N.C., on the edge of the Cherokee National Forest, didn’t take long to discover the new band, and within a short amount of time, Balsam Range was being heralded as the next big thing.
“Right off the bat, our home folks and our home county made us feel like we were a lot more than we really were,” he said.
Over the course of four albums, however, Balsam Range has turned heads nationally as well. The band was nominated as Emerging Artist of the Year at both the 2010 and 2011 International Bluegrass Music Association Awards, earning Album of the Year and Song of the Year nominations as well for the song and record “Trains I Missed.” The increased visibility led to a friendship with John Driskell Hopkins — the bass player for country music giant the Zac Brown Band, also in Knoxville this weekend — which in turn led to Balsam Range being brought into Brown’s Southern Ground Music family as an unofficial distant cousin. The guys not only played at the Southern Ground Music Festival last year; they also acted as the backup band for Hopkins’ recent solo effort, “Daylight.”
“What an awesome thing, being on the same bill as Gregg Allman and Grace Potter and John Mayer,” Nicholson said. “John loves bluegrass, truly loves it, and he’s really gotten into it. He has a big respect for it, and I kind of compare it to when Del McCoury and Steve Earle teamed up: It opened the eyes of Steve’s fans to bluegrass. Del didn’t change what he did; basically what it did was get him in front of a different audience.
“Working with John didn’t change Balsam Range’s music; it just allowed other people to see us, and that’s just awesome. We have people who come up and say, ‘I never listened to bluegrass before, but you guys are great. I love bluegrass now!’ And that’s a great feeling.”
It’s also been a two-way street. Recently, Hopkins traveled to North Carolina to perform with Balsam Range on the band’s home turf, and Nicholson admits that he and his bandmates were apprehensive over how their fans — many of whom are purists who feel “forsaken” when their beloved artists cross genre lines and dabble in “popular” music, no matter how talented such collaborations might be.
“This was the first time it was kind of on our turf, and we were nervous about how people would accept it, but it worked so beautifully because John’s such a great guy,” Nicholson said. “He’s down to earth and genuine in his love for music and the way he likes Balsam Range, and the crowd felt right at home with him immediately. They connected instantly.
“Besides, his record is a lot like Balsam Range live. There’s some country, some acoustic rock and some bluegrass-sounding songs, so it’s really a great marriage with what we do. And he’s in one of the hottest acts in music right now, period. We came out and did our thing, then John came out, and we did some songs from his record. It was nice to see two completely different worlds come together and work.”
Country and bluegrass may not seem that different, and where the Zac Brown Band (arguably one of the more authentic groups in contemporary country today) and Balsam Range are concerned, they’re not. But the artists themselves travel in two completely separate worlds. Hopkins and his bandmates live in a land of tour buses, spectacular stage productions, television appearances and endorsement deals from major sponsors. Nicholson and the boys in Balsam Range ... well, they come from a simpler world.
Not less talented; simpler. Nicholson knows this, because he’s grown up around guys who play the same style of music he does. He’s learned from them, and he knows that in his world, men like that will never have the same opportunities with which he himself has been blessed. And that’s OK, because they do not seek it.
“A lot of these older guys who have been around music for a long time, they just want to see it go on. They want to encourage young people,” he said. “That’s the real deal. I know so many talented people, probably more so than the people you hear on the radio, who make a living by working on cars or farming, but music is a part of their life, and they’ve played their whole life. It’s a part of them and a part of who they are.”