That ‘high, lonesome sound’ amid lonesome times
Darren Nicholson has played the Grand Ole Opry and the International Bluegrass Music Association award showcase numerous times. He’s got a bookshelf full of glass IBMA recognitions and more number one bluegrass hits with his band Balsam Range than he has fingers to count with.
But, last Saturday evening, Nicholson, a renowned mandolin player, stood onstage with his instrument, his acoustic guitar and his voice to an empty room at the Strand Theater in downtown Waynesville.
Well, somewhat empty, when you include the camera operator monitoring his Facebook live stream performance alongside a journalist seeking out stories during uncertain times.
“There was nobody clapping, but I’m used to that after a song,” Nicholson joked after the show. “But, in all honesty, what’s really odd is not having that crowd energy to feed off of. It’s that energy that motivates me and not having it does make the live streaming a challenge to work through.”
Always the source of positivity, onstage and off, Nicholson would normally be on the road around Southern Appalachian and beyond each weekend with Balsam Range, only to then spend the rest of the week playing Western North Carolina with his solo group, The Darren Nicholson Band.
But, with the current coronavirus crisis, all live music concerts have been cancelled across the country. Nicholson estimates he’s lost upwards of 50 shows for at least the next month or so, an income of thousands of dollars gone in the blink of an eye. Spring is also when the hectic music festival circuit kicks off, something now thrown out the window.
“I’m not in control of what happens tomorrow and I can’t undo what I did yesterday. The only thing I’m in control of is what I’m doing right now,” Nicholson said. “With this tragic crisis affecting all of us, there will be some great things that come from it all. And one of those things is living in the moment, to appreciate all of the great things in one’s life.”
Like most musicians dealing with the entire music industry coming to a halt, Nicholson is making the best of his time off the road and away from the studio.
“I can’t remember the last time I was home on Friday or Saturday, and now I’m playing board games and spending quality time with my family. I’ve started writing more songs and just trying to keep a good attitude. Heck, I’ve got two garages I need to clean out,” Nicholson chuckled. “Throughout my life, I’ve been kind of a pinball. But, God has looked after me and protected me through some wild times. Tim [Surrett of Balsam Range] told me that ‘faith is the opposite of fear,’ and that faith is helping me a lot through this time.”
For Balsam Range, a marquee bluegrass act that’s performs at large festivals and big stages seemingly every weekend, the band itself is holding steady with no shows on the horizon.
“Balsam Range probably prepared ourselves a little better than other groups because a lot of the members of our band are not only musicians, but also businessmen. Like most people that are in the art world, we just want to do the art, and you hope that the money comes in,” Nicholson said. “And so, when you build a music business or some kind of artistic business, you really have to build it backwards from the business part to the creative side. This crisis is going to change the music world forever. There’s going to be a lot of people that can’t survive it, but we’re all trying to be optimistic at this point.”
Before the coronavirus pandemic overtook the United States last month, Balsam Range was in the midst of recording its next album at the Crossroads Studios in Arden. Though the rest of the sessions are postponed, the quintet were able to get a handful of melodies tracked.
“Radio has changed so much anyways, where the format now is more about singles and hits than an entire album. So, we’re got four songs in the can, which can be released over an extended period of time,” Nicholson said. “But, of what we have ready, these are some of the best songs we’ve ever made. And we’ll finish the album when we can back into the studio.”
Gathering all of his equipment from the Strand Theater stage, Nicholson packs up his vehicle and gets ready to head back home. Who knows what tomorrow will bring? But, for Nicholson, he’s ready for whatever may come, for all obstacles are opportunities to learn and grow — as an artist, and also as a human being.
“I came from a poor background and my parents were survivors. They were fighters and they were hard workers. Whatever happens — you just keep going,” Nicholson said. “My parents raised me with that work ethic, and now I’ve raised my son the same way, too. There are things you face in life that aren’t always easy, but you keep rolling.”
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