Moxie and Mettle: Balsam Range on new album, flood relief show
Situated on Pisgah Drive/N.C. 110 in the outskirts of downtown Canton is the WPTL studio, a Haywood County community radio station (101.7 FM/920 AM) featuring Appalachian music, high school sports and local news.
It’s Wednesday evening and, like clockwork, Tim Surrett and his nephew, Carter Ball, jump behind the microphone to launch another episode of “Papertown Roots Radio.” Broadcasting from 7 to 10 p.m. on Mondays and Wednesdays, the popular program hovers around 19,000 digital listeners during each installment.
Though the “Papertown Roots Radio” live stream is usually jovial back and forth banter between the duo and whoever is commenting from Facebook, tonight’s conversation focuses on the journalist from The Smoky Mountain News who entered the studio to interview Surrett — about the love of his native Papertown, the recent flood devastation hitting Haywood County, and his band’s new album, Balsam Range’s “Moxie and Mettle.”
“You know, there’s a song on the new record called ‘Grit and Grace.’ The lyric in it is, ‘I supplied the grit, God supplied the grace,’” said Surrett, the standup bassist for Balsam Range. “And, well, it’s sort of become the unofficial fight song for the Town of Canton — through the flood, through the pandemic, and everything else.”
Aside from the poignant nature of the melody when applied to the current state of Haywood County and the world beyond our backyard, “Grit and Grace” was also another No. 1 bluegrass hit for Balsam Range, which has acquired more chart-topping songs than they can even keep track of.
“Grit and Grace” is also up for “Gospel Recording of the Year” at this week’s International Bluegrass Music Association (IBMA) award show, taking place Sept. 30 at the Duke Energy Center for the Performing Arts in Raleigh.
As well, Balsam Range is once again up for IBMA “Entertainer of the Year” (an award the quintet has won twice before) alongside the likes of marquee acts Billy Strings, Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver, The Del McCoury Band and The Po’ Ramblin’ Boys.
“We’ve all had our own bands and careers and done things, but the strength of the five of us [together over the last 15 years] is pretty amazing,” Surrett said. “We as a band have burned it so hard all these years — touring, recording and being away from home. But, then with the pandemic, we were able to spend time with our families. Now that we’re back playing? We’re in a real comfortable place because we know what to do — the fire has been kind of rekindled.”
A few days after WPTL broadcast, Balsam Range is backstage at MerleFest, the nation’s premier bluegrass and roots music festival some two hours north of Canton in Wilkesboro.
With around 80,000 attendees and dozens of acts over four days on the campus of Wilkes Community College, this year’s lineup included headliners Sturgill Simpson, Margo Price, Mavis Staples, Tedeschi Trucks Band, Sam Bush Band, Melissa Etheridge, Charley Crockett, Sierra Ferrell and Balsam Range.
Leaning back into the couch on the band’s luxury tour bus, Balsam Range mandolinist Darren Nicholson hasn’t taken a single day of this 15-year musical journey with his bandmates for granted.
“[Balsam Range banjoist] Marc [Pruett] told me years ago, ‘the key to being successful in the music world is don’t quit.’ And I know that may seem simple and cliché, but it’s the truth,” Nicholson said. “When you really care about something you’re passionate about — like a marriage or family relationship — you work through it, even when it’s uncomfortable. It’s that perseverance of setting a goal, sticking with it, working through stuff. For the last 15 years, Balsam Range has not always been easy — but, this is a family and we’ve worked hard to make this last.”
Later that evening, Balsam Range took to the massive Doc Watson Stage at MerleFest. In front of a raucous crowd of thousands, the ensemble rolled through its slew of number one hits from several beloved albums since its inception. The group also presented a handful of cuts for its recent, critically-acclaimed release, “Moxie and Mettle.”
“To me, the words ‘moxie’ and ‘mettle’ means strength, perseverance and hope — that attitude of not giving up. It’s that fighting spirit of just keeping it going,” Nicholson said. “And it’s that tough mountain spirit, too, the kind of way I was raised. My parents were hardworking mountain people and they persevered through hard times — life keeps coming at you, you take the good with the bad. And, when things get tough, you lean into it.”
“When I think of ‘moxie,’ I think of experience, strength, resilience and common sense,” Surrett added. “It’s about getting the job done, with ‘mettle’ the strength and stability to bend to whatever — you bend, but you don’t break.”
Tucked behind a shopping plaza in Canton, and just a few blocks from the Evergreen Packaging paper mill, Balsam Range formed around Christmas 2006 in the Nicholson’s kitchen. Though it’s hard to imagine nowadays, some of the members of what became the band either didn’t know each or merely had crossed paths through other projects, shows and recording sessions.
Aside from Surrett, Nicholson and Pruett, also present was guitarist Caleb Smith and fiddler Buddy Melton. Some of them were born and bred in Haywood County. Some hailed from right over the Balsam Gap in Jackson County. All five musicians were longtime professionals in other groups (with Pruett even winning a Grammy in 1998 for his work with Ricky Skaggs), each with countless shows and innumerable miles under their belts.
“Marc and I had played on some records. Buddy and Caleb had played on some records, and they knew Darren,” Surrett reflected. “So, we meet up in Darren’s kitchen. We were just [playing through] the bluegrass songbook, but it was pretty powerful.”
The first jam session had proved bountiful. It also sparked a bright, vibrant flame of camaraderie and musicianship that still burns red hot some 15 years later. Following the holidays, plans were made to circle back in January 2007 and play together again — to see if the magic they serendipitously felt in that kitchen was legitimate and actually worth pursuing.
“Marc was offered this corporate gig in late January 2007 to play bluegrass at the Grove Park Inn (Asheville),” Surrett said. “So, we said we’d play it, not thinking it would be a big thing or whatever. But, it turned out to be the ‘John Boy and Billy Comedy Weekend.’ There were 2,500 people there — we got up [onstage] and just blew their heads off.”
From there, it was off to the races for Balsam Range. What started with weekend performance runs to community centers, regional festivals, town gatherings, neighborhood barbecues and charity events around Western North Carolina has morphed into extended tours up and down the Eastern Seaboard, with trips out to the Rocky Mountains and West Coast now occurring with increasing regularity.
And yet, the story of the growth of Balsam Range isn’t that simple or cut and dry. The road was long and arduous, and remains so in many aspects. Though the band can pretty much pick and choose its show commitments these days, four of the five members still have day jobs.
Besides his weekly WPTL duties, Surrett works long hours in a local government position and for Crossroads Recording Studios in Arden (also home to Balsam Range’s label, Mountain Home Records). Nicholson punches the clock during the holidays at the Boyd Christmas Tree Farm in Jonathan Creek and plays seemingly every “night off” in his solo project, the Darren Nicholson Band.
Melton runs a large farm in Crabtree and also works as an engineer for the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources Public Water Supply Section. Smith is a renowned guitar luthier, one with a waiting list stretching way into the 2020s. Pruett recently retired from a decades-long career as the erosion control officer for Haywood County.
But, through it all, the band remains. Balsam Range is now a household name in the bluegrass and roots music scenes. There are too many hits and accolades to even list, with endless big names Balsam Range has collaborated and shared the stage with.
In terms of the IBMAs, the group has taken home “Entertainer of the Year” (2014, 2018), “Album of the Year” (2013, 2017), “Song of the Year” (2011, 2015) and “Vocal Group of the Year” (2014, 2015), aside from several individual honors with Melton named “Male Vocalist of the Year” (2014, 2018) and Surrett “Bass Player of the Year” (2018).
And with “Moxie and Mettle” currently ruling the airwaves, Balsam Range has now turned its focus to its upcoming fundraiser. Dubbed “Grit & Grace: A Flood Relief Benefit for Haywood County,” the concert will be held from 6 to 9 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 2, at Sorrells Street Park in Canton. Rapidly rising Americana act Amanda Anne Platt & The Honeycutters will kick off the show.
A free event (with a $20 suggested donation) to bring together the community for an evening of uplifting live music, all proceeds from the gig will go to the United Way of Haywood County. The funds will assist in disaster relief from last month’s devastating flood waters from Tropical Storm Fred that deeply affected and displaced hundreds of families in Canton, Cruso, Bethel and Clyde.
“Immediately after the flood happened, people just started showing up and coming together to help each other out,” Surrett said. “When something like this happens, you don’t ask questions. You just grab a shovel, you know? And I love that about this community.”
A native of Canton, Surrett is no stranger to the power of Mother Nature and floodwaters overtaking his hometown throughout the decades. With this last disaster, Surrett’s nephew and “Papertown Roots Radio” co-host, 19-year-old Carter Ball, lost his family’s home to the floodwaters that raged across Old Asheville Highway just east of downtown Canton.
Though the WPTL studio was untouched by the recent flood, the building is within vicinity of complete destruction. Less than a mile west of where Surrett and Ball broadcast each week is downtown Canton, less than five miles south is Jukebox Junction where Bethel transitions into Cruso (the epicenter of the devastation) — all of which was under a wall of water (some 20 feet high in some locations) just a month and a half ago.
“Balsam Range has always been about giving back to the community,” Surrett said. “And this ‘Grit & Grace’ flood benefit show may be the most important one we’ve ever done.”
Exiting the tour bus at MerleFest, Nicholson heads for the Doc Watson Stage and readies himself for sound check in the hours leading up the band’s appearance. He grabs his trusty mandolin, checks his in-ear monitors and takes his position onstage, but not before being posed one more question.
When asked about what he and the rest of Balsam Range still love about bluegrass, that “high, lonesome” sound and what it represents to not only the band, but also to the folks full of “moxie” and “mettle” in Haywood County and greater Western North Carolina, a slight grin emerges across Nicholson’s face.
“Everything we’re doing is roots music. When you think about The Beatles, Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry, Stevie Ray Vaughn, Marty Stuart, Ricky Skaggs, people like that — it all goes back to early blues and gospel, which became bluegrass,” Nicholson said. “And even though you can make a new version of it and slick it up, it still has this thread of authenticity that you can’t get away from. This music is so deeply rooted in the ancient tones — it’s in your soul, man.”
Balsam Range flood relief benefit concert
Presented by Balsam Range, United Way of Haywood County, Town of Canton, Clyde Lions Club, Canton Lions Club and The Smoky Mountain News, “Grit & Grace: A Flood Relief Benefit for Haywood County” will take place from 6 to 9 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 2, at Sorrells Street Park in downtown Canton.
Hitting the stage will be acclaimed bluegrass group Balsam Range, with Americana sensation Amanda Anne Platt & The Honeycutters opening the show.
The show is free and open to the public, with a $20 suggested donation at the entrance. All proceeds from the evening will go to the United Way of Haywood County, which will provide disaster relief for flood victims.
Food trucks and craft beer will also be sold onsite. Bring your lawn chairs and your good attitudes for an unforgettable night of Appalachian music under the stars.
Leave a comment
Listened to 101.7 Live broadcast of the entire album this week and it was wonderful!!!!