Balsam Range redefines regional bluegrass
By Chris Cooper
Two things still stick in my mind about Darren Nicholson’s excellent self-titled 2006 release; state of the art musicality married to a completely down to earth attitude, whether in person or on disc. Nicholson’s mastery in bluegrass mandolin has earned him no shortage of acclaim, some of which came in the form of an IBMA award for his work with Alecia Nugent.
It wasn’t long after leaving the road with Nugent that Nicholson returned home to WNC and formed a band with the cream of the mountain musical crop, the result being Balsam Range’s debut, Marching Home. Comprised of legendary banjo picker Marc Pruett, award winning guitarist Caleb Smith, fiddler Buddy Melton and bassist Tim Surrett, Balsam Range keeps those previous two elements: high caliber musicianship and a grounded respect for tradition- high on the list throughout Marching Home.
Storming in with a Pruett original, “The Train’s Ready,” the band pulls no punches whatsoever. Nicholson’s mandolin whizzes by in a flurry of notes in the song’s first break, with Pruett quick to follow suit with a reply moments later. It’s two minutes and seventeen seconds of double espresso fueled bluegrass bliss, and it’s a helluva way to start an album. Fiddler Buddy Melton takes the lead vocal on “Blue Mountain’s” heartbroken waltz, which brings the tempo down considerably but ably demonstrates one of the group’s other talents — gorgeous three-part harmony work, with Nicholson and Surrett holding down low tenor and baritone duties.
Things pick up steam once again on “Calloway County Flood,” and the band interprets the tune with a bluesy swagger that allows Nicholson and guitarist Caleb Smith to shine on brief but ear-catching solos. Again, the vocals are lush and finely tuned; check out those “train whistle” sixth chord harmonies near the song’s close. This tale of unheeded warnings and the price paid struck me as relevant on more than a few levels today, politically and environmentally, whether it was the band’s intention or not.
Perusing the liner notes of Marching Home holds a few surprises, as the name Tony Rice has a tendency to pop out from the rest of the text for musicians and bluegrass fans in general. And his guitar playing certainly makes it’s presence known on “Burning Georgia Down,” rippling and weaving through this tale of Georgia’s destruction from a southern soldier’s point of view. Rice’s nimble picking and warm, woody tone are truly a thing to behold, and his jazzy, modal chord work on the outro takes the tune someplace different altogether.
By far the most crossover friendly song in this collection is “Could’ve Fooled Me” with its mid-tempo pop feel and tightly layered vocals. Taking the lead vocal here is guitarist Caleb Smith, whose skill is obviously not limited to his already impressive guitar work. He’s got a voice perfectly suited to modern country balladry, and though the only thing “bluegrass” here is the instrumentation, the addition of Tim Surrett’s resonator guitar (hey, I thought this guy was a bassist...) and those soaring harmonies make for a fine respite from the mostly conventional leanings on the rest of the disc.
The guest artists continue, with fiddler Jim VanCleve taking the reins of “Goodbye Old Pal” and dueling with Pruett’s banjo and Smith’s guitar, who in particular uncaps some excellent picking here. Joe Diffie takes lead vocal on Bill Monroe’s “Come Back To Me In My Dreams,” then it’s back to the core musicians that make up Balsam Range for the conclusion of Marching Home. Another Bill Monroe tune takes the album out, “Travelin’ This Lonesome Road,” and all the qualities that make Balsam Range such a special group of musicians is here; the harmony work, tasteful but fiery playing, and especially their crafty interpretive skills. This band’s a walking textbook of mountain virtuosity, unafraid to play it straight or stretch things a bit when needed. Considering the bumper crop of new bluegrass this year, it’s becoming harder and harder to pick what might qualify as the “best” so far... but Balsam Range has the scales tipping pretty far in their favor with this one.