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This must be the place

art theplaceThe strings of tradition and progress echoed from the back alley. Upon further inspection (and a lone door cracked open), the harmonic tone was radiating from the mandolin of Darren Nicholson.


Readying himself for a performance that evening at the Colonial Theater in downtown Canton, Nicholson is part of renowned bluegrass ensemble Balsam Range. As tall as a grizzly bear with a persona that is the epitome of southern hospitality, he walks across the stage and extends a handshake the size of baseball glove.

“Welcome,” he smiled.

Those words above became the introduction of my first article for The Smoky Mountain News. Nicholson was literally the first person I ever interviewed in Western North Carolina. And, that seems kind of poignant, in hindsight.

Beyond his prized work with Balsam Range, he also fronts a solo group, the Darren Nicholson Band — a group that’s a little bit classic county, a little bit old-time mountain music. The side project plays as an outlet for Nicholson from his hefty schedule for his day job. Both bands provide a fulfilling musical existence for the mandolinist, who has a heart as big as his sound.

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The Smoky Mountain News recently caught up with Nicholson. He spoke of his success with Balsam Range (2013 International Bluegrass Music Association winners for “Album of the Year”), his new solo album “Things Left Undone,” and why there’s no greater feeling than being onstage.

The Smoky Mountain News: 2013 was a big year for you.

Darren Nicholson: It has been a huge year. Balsam Range getting “Album of the Year,” I mean that’s really at the pinnacle for what you’d hope for as a recording artist. I was on a collaborative album that won “Album of the Year” in 2006, but I have to say this one meant a whole lot more obviously being more involved in it from the ground up. And I’m really glad to see us get a band award, which has been the concept from the get-go. And to be working on the solo project, this is been an amazing year.

SMN: What’s the intent with the solo project?

DN: Well obviously Balsam Range is my main focus, but the Darren Nicholson Band is basically an outlet for a bunch of old friends to get together to make music when Balsam Range takes time off. And just like the solo record, it gives me an outlet to do something different creatively to keep music fresh for me and it is just a different sound. 

SMN: What does the title “Things Left Undone” signify?

DN: The title represents a lot of us and how we feel about life in general, and how I think we all sometimes have to stop, reflect and want to be better people. I’m a sucker for a good song. Whenever I’m putting music together, the most important thing in the music is the singing, and everything will fall into place around good material. 

SMN: When you write songs, is it lyrics then melody, or vice versa?

DN: The songwriting process for me is an evolving thing, but it’s usually lyrics first with music and vocals later. I love a good story and song, and that has motivated me to get more into the songwriting process because I’m such a fan of great songwriters.

SMN: Onstage, when the band is firing on all cylinders, what goes through your head?

DN: When I’m onstage, that’s when I’m having the most fun, and I’m the most relaxed because it’s absolutely what I love to do. If I think about anything, it’s the fact that I’m trying to entertain and hope the audience can relate to how much fun I’m having.

SMN: Why is it important to have that solo outlet?

DN: It’s very important to have a solo outlet. All the guys in Balsam Range have different musical tastes and stylistic things that they love the most. It’s no secret, I’m a classic country fan and I just love music with a more organic approach, and I really feel like this album reflects a lot of different styles of music that I enjoy playing. But, I also take a lot of pride in producing it to where I hope it sounds very professional. I did this record for the same reason a lot of people do a solo record, and that’s to showcase what I do best.

SMN: What does 2014 hold for you?

DN: The sky is the limit. I get to work with some of the greatest musicians in the world. I’m excited about what’s on the horizon for Balsam Range and the Darren Nicholson Band. I just hope people will give this album a listen and come support live music in any form. I love it with all my heart.

Editor’s Note: The Darren Nicholson Band will host an album release party for “Things Left Undone” at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, Dec. 11, at Smoky Mountain Coffee Roasters in Waynesville. As well, Balsam Range kicks off their “Winter Concert Series” with special guests The Jeff Little Trio, Steve Lewis and Josh Scott at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 7, at the Colonial Theatre in Canton.


Hot picks

1: Balsam Range kicks off their “Winter Concert Series” at the Colonial Theatre in Canton on Dec. 7 with The Jeff Little Trio, Steve Lewis and Josh Scott.

2: The “Winter Wonderland” will be Dec. 6 and 13 in downtown Franklin.

3: The “Lights and Luminaries” festival will be Dec. 6-7, 13-14 in downtown Dillsboro.

4: “A Christmas Carol” will play select dates in December at the Haywood Arts Regional Theater in Waynesville.

5: Mandolinist Darren Nicholson (Balsam Range) will host a solo album release party on Dec. 11 at Smoky Mountain Roasters in Waynesville.

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