Archived Arts & Entertainment

From the border to the backwoods

art balsamrangeI didn’t know who Balsam Range was when I first met them.

On Aug. 10, 2012, I had just moved to Waynesville — literally. A week prior I had accepted the position at The Smoky Mountain News, packed up whatever could fit in my old pickup and drove 1,016 miles overnight from Upstate New York to Haywood County.

I had just arrived in town mid-afternoon. Without unpacking a single thing or even knowing where’d I be sleeping that night (I hadn’t gotten an apartment yet), I was given my first assignment — covering the Balsam Range album release party for their new album “Papertown” that evening at the Colonial Theatre in Canton.

And with that I had three questions for my publisher: Who is Balsam Range? How do I get to Canton? Where is the Colonial Theatre? With a crash-course education on all three queries, I was handed a notepad, pen and camera, only to be shoed out the door so I wouldn’t be late for my first assignment.

After finally tracking down the Colonial Theatre, I found the front door was locked. I wandered around to a back alley and found a door slightly open. I could hear the sounds of a mandolin being played. Upon closer inspection, I saw mandolinist Darren Nicholson onstage by himself, warming up for the performance. 

“Welcome,” he said with a handshake. 

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Nicholson introduced me to the rest of Balsam Range. They invited me to sit down to a preshow dinner with them. I felt immediately at home, in an atmosphere of laughter and warmth, one that proves Southern hospitality is not a myth.

“Garret, where are you from? You don’t seem to have a Southern accent.” Nicholson asked.

“Upstate New York,” I responded.

“How long have you lived in Haywood County?” he countered.

“About 45 minutes,” I laughed.

I had resided in Western North Carolina for less than an hour, but I had met a very special group of musicians. Standing on the side of the stage, taking photos, notes and listening to them play, I was instantly mesmerized by their stage presence, musicianship and showmanship. 

“Originally, we just got together to jam. A couple of the guys had put out solo records and some of us played on those records. We had so much fun and ended up picking together,” bassist Tim Surrett said that night. “Nobody is looking to nod out [of the band]. It’s kind of funny, we never thought this would go that far and now we’re going to have some decisions to make. It’s like a dog chasing a car. You caught the car, so now what do you do with it?”

There were a lot of tears in the audience that night two years ago in Canton. Not only was it the album release party, it was also one of the first shows back for fiddler Buddy Melton, who almost died in a farming accident in early 2012. Owner of a 300-acre farm in Crabtree, Melton was kicked in the face while loading cattle. He suffered brain trauma, with surgeons wondering if he’d survive, let alone be the same again or sing his trademark high tenor voice after the recovery.

“The accident changed me drastically. I went through life without any major glitches, never been in a hospital. You think you’re somewhat invincible, you see people suffer and you feel for them, but when you personally go through something like that it’s a reality check,” Melton told The Smoky Mountain News earlier this year. “You realize life is precious, life is short, and you need to take advantage of every opportunity that comes you way.”

“Papertown” went on to win the 2013 International Bluegrass Music Association award for Album of the Year.


Play that mountain music

The beauty of bluegrass lies in its transparency. 

When you’re having a good or bad day, those emotions will filter through your voice and fingertips. You can’t hide behind the music — you are vulnerable to the listener, to yourself and the cosmos above. It’s a rare and beautiful thing to come across such honesty, pure intent and genuine face-to-face interaction that the music conjures in a modern, fast-paced world.

As a kid, raised on the Canadian border of Upstate New York, I was aware of bluegrass and traditional music, but it hadn’t “clicked” with me yet. Sure, I had acclaimed bluegrass act The Gibson Brothers just down the road from me, and did see them a handful of times, but I was young, more focused on Top 40 radio and whatever music would irritate my parents the most.

But, that soon changed. I was introduced to the rabbit hole of music that is The Grateful Dead. Their blend of rock-n-roll, Americana, folk and string music pulled me right in — I couldn’t get enough. So, I started digging deeper into their extended catalog and side projects. 

In college, I came across the landmark 1975 bluegrass self-titled album by “Old and In The Way,” which featured Jerry Garcia (lead guitarist/singer of The Grateful Dead) on banjo. The supergroup also included bluegrass legends Vassar Clements (fiddle), David Grisman (mandolin), John Kahn (bass) and Peter Rowan (guitar). To this day, that album remains one of the most influential and important records in the bluegrass industry. It brought the genre into the mainstream, exposing countless folks to a sound they perhaps hadn’t ever heard before, in a way unseen until maybe when the 2000 film “Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?” became a box office success with a soundtrack of pure bluegrass gold that sold millions.

“Old and In The Way” led me to Rowan, who then became my first feature interview as a journalist in college. A singer-songwriter who penned many bluegrass standards like “Midnight Moonlight” and “Panama Red,” Rowan is a living, breathing treasure in the bluegrass world. That initial interview molded itself into a dear friendship between the two of us, one that continues to this day and was recently rekindled when he played the Cataloochee Guest Ranch in Maggie Valley, a favorite venue of his.

Rowan’s work then brought me to Bill Monroe, Sam Bush, Del McCoury, Dr. Ralph Stanley, and others. The more one explores bluegrass, the more one uncovers — it is an endless stream of people, places and things. Add in my travels around the country as a music journalist following college, and you’ll see numerous modern day groups ready and willing to take the torch from their beloved elders, outfits like Yonder Mountain String Band, Steep Canyon Rangers, Railroad Earth, The Infamous Stringdusters and Greensky Bluegrass.

All of those names listed above prodded my eventual acceptance of the feature writer position at The Smoky Mountain News. I had fallen in love with bluegrass and traditional music, and where else better to immerse myself in it than the high peaks and low valleys of Western North Carolina? 

For the last two years, I’ve run around the back roads and backwoods of Southern Appalachia in search of “the sound,” where I’ve found myself in the presence of old-time porch pickers, highly polished stage acts, voices like songbirds, fingers like bolts of lighting, and everything in between. And in my travels I’ve come across melodic beauty either undiscovered before or merely forgotten about since. 

For myself, being there at the International Bluegrass Music Association award show in Raleigh last week with Balsam Range and watching them win Entertainer of the Year was a cathartic, full circle experience. These five guys, this “band of brothers,” who I didn’t even know two years ago are now dear friends that I got to witness revel in quite possibly the most important night of their bountiful and ever-evolving career.

Bluegrass is the soundtrack of our country, its people, its past, present and future. With one foot in tradition and the other in evolution, it is as timeless as it is vital to the perpetuation of humanity.

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