“They” as in the International Bluegrass Music Association, and what was called turned out to be Balsam Range winning Entertainer of the Year at the annual award show Oct. 2 in Raleigh. For Smith, the guitarist in the Haywood County group, taking home the biggest honor in the bluegrass industry was both shocking and very humbling.
“I just couldn’t believe it,” he said at the band’s celebratory after-party. “It’s humbling to even be nominated for this award by your peers and your heroes, and to win it and take it home, well, it was a milestone moment we’ll never forget — we hit the top of the mountain.”
Alongside Smith, Buddy Melton (fiddle), Darren Nicholson (mandolin), Tim Surrett (bass/dobro) and Marc Pruett (banjo) took the grand stage at the Raleigh Memorial Auditorium to accept the award. It was the band’s third win in an evening that also garnered them Vocal Group of the Year and Male Vocalist of the Year, which was bestowed upon Melton.
“My mind was just racing. There were a lot of nominees in that category who were people that are the reason I got into singing in the first place,” Melton said. “To be included with that caliber of performers is amazing, and to win it just put it over the top.”
Surrett also won the Momentum Award for Mentor the previous night.
“I’ve had a lot of fun over the last few years producing other people’s records and being able to help bring up a lot of these younger players,” he said. “And for Balsam Range, it means so much to us that folks really do like what we’re trying to do.”
Since their inception in 2007, Balsam Range has rapidly risen into the stratosphere of 21st century bluegrass. Amid their numerous number-one singles, accolades and Grand Ole Opry appearances, they also won the 2011 IBMA Song of the Year award for “Trains I Missed.”
And on the heels of winning Album of the Year in 2013 for “Papertown,” the quintet released the follow-up “Five” in June. The new record and its singles have spent most of this past summer burning up the bluegrass charts — a convincing sign that the group will most likely be nominated for Album of the Year in 2015 and perhaps for Song of the Year for “Moon Over Memphis.”
“It’s exciting. It’s hard to believe looking back at where we started and to see it materialize in the way it has,” Melton said in June. “‘Papertown’ was a benchmark as to where we’re at. We’re really proud of this new album and what the future holds.”
Coming into 2014, Balsam Range was nominated by the IBMAs for Entertainer of the Year, Vocal Group of the Year, Instrumental Group of the Year, Male Vocalist of the Year, and Momentum Award for Mentor. It was a huge honor to the band to be named as contenders in so many prestigious categories. It’s also a testament to the mere fact it’s the same lineup of musicians pushing ahead and reaching for their dreams together.
“It’s amazing to look at our band and see that it’s still the same five guys it has been since day one. It makes people believe in you and in what you’re doing,” Smith said this summer. “Last year, when we’re nominated at the IBMA’s for Album of the Year, Entertainer of the Year and Song of the Year, it was surreal to be nominated and surrounded by your heroes. It’s crazy to think how far we’ve come. I mean, when we first played a show together we didn’t even have a name.”
But, besides all the accolades and critical acclaim, what matters most to Balsam Range is simple — family, friends and a keen sense of community. For every time they’ve played the Grand Ole Opry or headlined a national festival, they’ve also played off-the-beaten-path fundraisers for the Balsam-Willet Volunteer Fire Department or an intimate back porch set at the Fines Creek Bluegrass Jam. For every IBMA win or hit single, there are days (too many to count) where they still get up on Monday morning and head to work for the county, the state, at the record studio, in the workshop building guitars or playing in other groups on days off to supplement income. It’s about hard work and pride in what you do, not getting too big for your britches, always remembering where you came from, the people that know you the best and love you the most.
Simply put, Balsam Range has earned a reputation as hometown heroes and cultural ambassadors of Western North Carolina and Southern Appalachia.
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“Music is a very powerful thing, it speaks to people, it’s the universal language, and there’s a responsibility with that when you get to the level we’re at,” Melton said. “People connect to your music and they tell you their life story, and it brings awareness to what we’re doing. We’re impacting people’s lives and they’re impacting ours — that’s a pretty special thing.”
Onward to the Piedmont
Leaving Haywood County last Thursday, the early fall crisp air of the mountains soon transitioned into the lingering summer heat and humidity of the Piedmont region in central and east North Carolina. Three hundred miles and five hours later, a blazing sun hung overhead in downtown Raleigh.
Checking in at the Raleigh Convention Center, one couldn’t believe how many musicians and people were milling about. It appeared everyone who either played or owned an instrument was carrying them around. Attendees would wander by one of the innumerable jam sessions (in seemingly every corner of the city) and jump right in. Eager strings and notes rang out from every direction.
Standing in the convention center, Pruett said he always looks forward to coming to the IBMAs.
“It’s a fellowship with all of these folks, all the people we’ve known through the years,” he said. “It’s about friends and inspiration, with some of it about business and making connections, but more than anything else it’s the pure emotion of being with your friends and loved ones.”
So, what about Balsam Range being nominated for tonight’s Entertainer of the Year award, the biggest honor in the industry, alongside bluegrass greats Blue Highway, Dailey & Vincent, The Del McCoury Band and The Gibson Brothers?
“It’s a fabulous honor to just be in the final five nominees,” Pruett said. “The way I feel about that honor is that I can get the chance to get back on that stage and keep working, keep going, keep making friends, keep making music. If it’s our time to be recognized that’s a great thing. I don’t know if this is the year for that to happen, but I’m glad to be on this path.”
Downstairs in the convention center, Smith is browsing instruments in the elaborate exhibition hall and product showcase area.
“The IBMAs are so cool because you get to see everybody in the industry all in one spot, all together, folks you see throughout the year and others you don’t have a chance to see,” he said. “I’m so grateful for our nominations this year. There has been so much great music coming out of Western North Carolina for so long, that it’s great to see it get recognized here in Raleigh.”
A couple hours later, Balsam Range emerges from their hotel rooms, all decked out in tuxedos, with each of their wives joyously on their arms. Waiting in line on the media red carpet leading to the entrance of the Raleigh Memorial Auditorium, Surrett is all smiles about tonight’s nominations.
“It’s awesome because we know we’re not the best playing band or singing band, and it means that folks who voted for us really do like what we’re doing,” he modestly said. “Playing music is about learning how to get with people, how important it is to make friends along the way, and just have fun in doing so.”
A few feet away, Nicholson is proud to represent Haywood County and Western North Carolina.
“For me, I sometimes forget how much our music means to people because you’re out there and think, ‘Well, I’m just in a bluegrass band and it’s not a big deal to anybody,’” he said. “But homefolks care about us and it is a big deal to be down here, and the support everyone at home has given us just means the world to us.”
“Music is a powerful thing,” Melton added. “It affects people in a lot of different ways, it brings people together, and it’s a positive force, especially in the bluegrass genre.”
Also strolling the red carpet were a Who’s Who of the bluegrass industry. They are all here to not only share in the nominations but also to bear witness to the fruits of their labors and the hard work put in day in and day out by their peers.
“In general, I have found the better the musician, the better the person, with some of the greatest musicians I’ve ever met being some of the nicest people I’ve ever known. What I love about being here is that we get to see everyone I know, it lends us a place to be together,” said legendary mandolinist Sam Bush. “For me, the IBMA organization is based on musical integrity. Even the people that don’t play music for a living, the IBMA fans all come here to support us, they don’t just come here to see others play, they come to jam, too.”
So, what about Balsam Range and what they have to bring to the table?
“They’re bringing to the table their own style, and I think that’s one of the most important things. With the young bands, it’s the most important thing to bring to the table — your own style,” Bush said.
Bluegrass superstars Del McCoury and Eric Gibson had similar sentiments.
“[Balsam Range] is a great band, they’ve have their own niche and style, and that’s what it takes,” McCoury said. “Variety is what I liked in music, and they have that.”
“There’s a warmth in [Balsam Range] that the audience picks up on,” Gibson noted. “They have a unique and fresh sound, and bringing a lot of new material to the genre — great guys onstage and off, too.”
And the award goes to …
As nominees for Entertainer of the Year, Balsam Range was seated in the front row of the enormous auditorium. Before they even had a chance to get their seats warm, they had won the first award of the night — Vocal Group of the Year. That excitement only snowballed when the award envelope was ripped open and Melton was announced as Male Vocalist of the Year. During his acceptance speech, Melton was overcome with emotion, reflecting on his long road of recovery from his near-death farming accident two years ago, to now holding in his hand the biggest individual honor in bluegrass.
“You surround yourself with good people, great things will happen,” he said afterwards. “Life is so funny, you just never know what’s coming. Sometimes it’s challenging, sometimes it’s rewarding. It just shows you to push forward and keep believing that good things are going to happen.”
The award show continued on with numerous highlights. From a solo dobro performance by co-host Jerry Douglas to an intimate performance by co-host/country music star Lee Ann Womack, and other staggeringly beautiful songs by Claire Lynch, The Seldom Scene, Del McCoury Band and The Boxcars, to name a few. It was a magical night, with an electric buzz of love, passion and camaraderie echoing throughout the building.
Before the final award for Entertainer of the Year was presented, Balsam Range took the stage to play their hit song “Moon Over Memphis.” The melody took the roof off the building, as the audience roared in applause following its completion. The band had yet to return to their front row seats when it was announced they had won Entertainer of the Year. The auditorium shook with cheers and a standing ovation when they emerged from backstage to receive their trophy. The group waved to the crowd, only to look down with smiles from ear-to-ear at their ecstatic wives clapping from the front row.
It was a moment they’d never forget, a moment of pride that will go down as one of the finest in the long and storied musical history of Western North Carolina.
Top of the mountain
Tucked away in the warehouse district of downtown Raleigh, Balsam Range arrived at their after-party within the cozy Five Star Restaurant. It was filled with their closest friends, family members and business partners, all there to celebrate the well-earned achievements made by the group.
Standing to the side of the excitement, Surrett took a moment to collect himself. He seemed in a sort of dreamlike state, in awe of what had just happened, where being told he and his band just won the award for Entertainer of the Year was something he made up in his mind — a long held wish now turned reality.
“I haven’t felt this proud since Pisgah High School won the state football championship in 1976,” he chuckled. “I mean, just to be in that room tonight with all our peers and heroes was just incredible. We’re named in the same breath as someone like Del McCoury, and that seems just crazy to us.”
Surrett’s gaze scans across the after-party, almost as if to truly never forget this moment.
“We’ve not done anything differently since we started playing together,” he said. “We just keep doing what we’re doing, and it just seems to get out there to more people — we keep pushing forward.”