Late Bloomer: Local bassist in full flower

“This song was written before the USDA got their hands on organic standards,” announces the booming voice from the stage. It’s a Friday night in late April and the attention of the crowd at Sylva’s Soul Infusion Bistro is centered on bass player Adam Bigelow.

“We in no way endorse USDA organic standards,” Bigelow continues. “Buy local from someone you know. We support the Jackson County Farmers Market — because we’re for real.”

At six-foot-four, with a distinctive baritone and seemingly permanent smile, Adam Bigelow is one of Jackson County’s most recognizable local musicians. He might also be one of the busiest. He performs every Tuesday night at Guadalupe Café’s “Old Timey Music Jam” and is also the bass player for local groups The Dan River Drifters, The Imperative and Cooking with Quanta. In the last two weeks alone, Bigelow has played 11 gigs, with several more still to go.

But musician is only one of Adam Bigelow’s many roles. He might be just as quickly recognized for his work in several Jackson County community and conservation groups. And apart from being a self-professed “plant nerd,” a rock-and-roll evangelist and an active community member, now Adam Bigelow will have a new title — 40-year-old college graduate.

Last Saturday, Bigelow got his bachelor’s in environmental sciences from Western Carolina University.

Thursday evening finds a bare-footed Bigelow at downtown Sylva’s Community Garden, a volunteer organization that supplies organically grown produce to The Community Table, which serves meals to Jackson County residents in need. Bigelow coordinates a weekly volunteer workday, but this particular Thursday also marks Bigelow’s last day of classes at WCU.

“This is exactly where I want to be right now,” he says. “In my happy spot.”

A native of Hampton, Va., Bigelow moved to Sylva from Goldsboro at age 22, intending to study radio and television production at Southwestern Community College. Those plans quickly changed.

“I dropped out of school, but fell in love with the mountains,” he says. “People come here, go to school, and leave. Or people grow up here, stay for a little while and leave. But then there are others that move here from elsewhere and say, ‘This place is amazing. Why would you want to live anywhere else?’ And they stay.”

These days Bigelow is involved with many community efforts, mostly centered on environmental conservation. This is his fifth season at the Community Garden, but he is also involved with the Cullowhee Revitalization Effort, the Jackson County Smart Roads Alliance, the Highlands Native Plants Conference and the Cullowhee Native Plants Conference.

“Unfortunately, I have to credit Wal-Mart with sparking my interest in plants,” Bigelow says. He worked in the garden center at the Franklin Wal-Mart for a few years before working for a local landscaping company and taking courses in horticulture. Seeking to “just learn more,” Bigelow returned to school and earned an associate’s degree from Haywood Community College, an experience that he credits with turning him from “a person who liked plants into a horticulturist.”

“I never thought I was going to get a real degree.” Bigelow says. Then, with a characteristic grin, he adds, “It’s an A.A.S. degree, but I wish it was an A.S.S. degree to match my B.S. degree.”

As far-fetched as attaining a degree might have seemed to Bigelow at one time, being a performing musician must have seemed even more unlikely.

“For most people, when you get to your mid twenties, if you haven’t already become an artist, the chances are you’re not going to do it,” he says.  “It was really a response to trauma and life changes that put me into playing music.”

Despite taking guitar lessons as a child, Bigelow had abandoned his musical ambitions, due in part to a disastrous elementary school talent show and a failed attempt at performing “Yankee Doodle Dandy.” Bigelow didn’t perform in front of an audience again until he was 27 and began playing electric bass for a four piece jam and cover band that lasted two shows. But then sometime around August 2001 (the actual founding date is apparently a matter of debate), Bigelow was approached by his friend Greg Walker about a new project.

“That second band was Cooking with Quanta,” Bigelow says. “I have been in that band ever since and I will be in that band for the rest of my life.”

After four years of playing electric bass, Bigelow was introduced to what would become his trademark instrument, the acoustic upright bass. With the upright, he started attending the Old Timey Music Jams, where he began playing with fiddler Ian Moore and guitarist Hal Herzog. The immediate results, however, were not entirely encouraging.

“I played that first night and I didn’t know any of the songs,” Bigelow recalls. “Hal denies this but I remember. At one point, he looked over at me and said, ‘Boy, when you don’t know a song you sure do play it loud.’”

Despite initial set-backs, Bigelow has been playing with Moore and Herzog for three years now. In addition to those performances, Bigelow plays his upright acoustic for the Dan River Drifters, a group of younger “pickers,” with whom he has been playing for over a year.

“I don’t like listening to only one type of music,” Bigelow says. “I don’t even like playing only one type of music. You know, four hours of bluegrass will drive you insane. Four hours of any one type of music will.”

Like most recent and soon-to-be college graduates, Bigelow is nervous about his future. Faced with the daunting task of paying back student loans, he jokes about entering into “an experiment in poverty.” At this point, graduate school is not a favored option, though his hope is to work in garden-based environmental education “teaching people how to create a sustainable future.”

But perhaps most fittingly, his first move upon graduation was to kick back and play some music in celebration, at a graduation-cum-birthday bash to herald his achievements and hope for the future.

“I was thinking, ‘What do I want to do for my graduation?’ and I couldn’t think of anything I wanted to do more than play music. I love the fact that I’m a musician. I’m so lucky.”

— By Carrie Eidson

Passing it along: With a nod to tradition, Canton’s Bryan McDowell finds a way of his own

By Kristen Davis • Contributing writer

Triple-threat musician Bryan McDowell was first introduced to bluegrass music as a young child while riding in the car with his parents. His father taught him and his sister, Emma, how to identify the sounds of the different instruments and would quiz them on the new knowledge.

“By the time I was 3 or 4, I could tell anybody what instrument was playing when they took a solo,” said Canton native McDowell, now 19 years old.

By age 5, McDowell liked the sound of the fiddle best, so he and his sister played with their parents at local churches as “The McDowell Family Band.” At age 9, McDowell began taking lessons from Arvil Freeman, the renowned old-time fiddler who is a native of Madison County. After the fiddle, the musically precocious pre-teen took up the mandolin and then the guitar.

Several years later in 2009, McDowell became the first musician in the history of the Walnut Valley Festival in Winfield, Kansas, (known as “Winfield”) to win first place in all three instrument categories — flat-pick guitar, fiddle and mandolin. McDowell’s two band mates and friends, Brandon Davis and Eric Hardin, won second and third place respectively in the flat-pick guitar competition. First known as “4 Fret Knot” then “Second Circle,” the three musicians now perform as the “Winfield Three.”

McDowell has not slowed down his big “year of firsts” in 2009. This fall, he has won the Galax Fiddlers Convention Guitar Competition, another mandolin championship at Winfield and the Georgia State championships for the flat-pick guitar, fiddle and mandolin.

Right before this year’s Winfield festival in September, McDowell released his first album, “The Contestant,” which is a compilation of his contest tunes and arrangements that he has played over the last two years.

“A lot of people were curious about how I actually sounded in the contest, so I tried to record something that depicted how I sound in the contest,” McDowell said. “It was a success in that it is like a snapshot of my playing at the time.”

To make the recordings sound as much like his live performance as possible, he would listen to the live recording or watch a video of his performance, he added.

While the songs on his “Contestant” album are traditional bluegrass tunes that he has embellished, his next album, which he is currently crafting, will include original material. Compared to the first, this next album will be “different by a long shot” because he has developed a different style, the singer-songwriter said. The album should be released within a year.

“Bryan has got his own style of playing,” said Freeman, who taught fiddle lessons to both McDowell and his sister, Emma. “While teaching him, that’s what I taught him to do — not play exactly like me, but take what I taught him and create his own style.”

McDowell’s approach to the fiddle is more progressive and jazz-like, whereas Freeman’s playing involves more bluegrass, country and “a little swing,” Freeman explained.

McDowell’s style has also been influenced by the bluegrass gospels song he played while performing with his parents and sister in their family band, said Donna McDowell, Bryan McDowell’s mother.  

“We always tried to pick music with a gospel message that would speak to people,” Donna McDowell added. “He still does some gospel, but he does a lot of other things. The biggest thing I see in his playing — I call it finesse. He has this really smooth style that folks enjoy listening to.”

Over the past two years, people all over the country have had the opportunity to hear Bryan McDowell play at shows and competitions — in Maine, New York, Colorado and throughout the southeast.  

When McDowell was a young boy, his family saw famous country-bluegrass singer/songwriter/fiddler Alison Krauss in concert and met her backstage. Krauss told her young fans, “If you play the music you love, you’ll always have an audience.” That truism has stuck with McDowell and his sister, their mother said.

Now, in addition to writing songs for his new album, McDowell is teaching music lessons in Waynesville.

“I want [the music] to be passed on,” McDowell said. “That’s how the music world is. You can’t be learning something and not pass it on to others, otherwise the music dies with you. That’s an idea [Freeman] instilled in me.”

As for his future plans, McDowell said he wants to focus on recording his music and playing shows with Davis and Hardin as “The Winfield Three.” Having won all the major competitions for the instruments he plays, he has his sights set on turning his musical passion into a feasible living. He is considering getting a college education, most likely in business rather than music.

“I was kind of ready to be done with contests,” McDowell added. “There’s a point when it’s kind of hypocritical to say that one musician is better than another one. At competitions, there’s a lot musicians can teach each other on any given day.”

Freeman said he hopes to see his former student pursue studio work rather than playing in a band long-term.

“I would love nothing more than to make a living playing music,” McDowell said. “Even if that wasn’t my main job, I never see myself laying down the instruments. I’d always have to be playing.”

For music clips and booking information, visit his web site:

Balsam Range’s mountain mantra

By Christi Marsico • Staff Writer

Little girls clacked their clogging shoes while families ate hushpuppies and barbecue in anticipation for the band, Balsam Range, to play at the Fiddlin’ Pig in Asheville last Friday night.

Teens in camouflage hats and T-shirts checked out the band’s CDs while the Southern Mountain Fire clogging team strolled through the restaurant claiming their turf and sizing up the onlookers.

Like five train cars hooked together cruising down the track, the musicians of Balsam Range announced their presence.

“We’re having fun already so you might as well go with us,” bass player Tim Surrett said.

Balsam Range performed a smattering of songs from their repertoire, including a few numbers from their latest CD release “Last Train to Kitty Hawk” while some listeners kicked up their heels and others relaxed.

Spread over two picnic tables was the church group from Rocksprings Baptist Church in Crabtree.

Wearing a pink sweater with a napkin in her lap, Frances Clark said seeing Balsam Range at the Fiddlin’ Pig was better than going to Dollywood.

Charlie Simpson, pastor of Rocksprings Baptist Church, believes Balsam Range’s music has made a lasting impression on the local music scene for generations to come.

“Buddy Melton has researched the history and sees who we are and not who we are influenced by,” Simpson said.

Rocksprings Baptist Church member Marlene Hills is a big Balsam Range fan, adding “they seem to work so well together, like peanut butter and jelly. They are an asset to Western North Carolina and represent what Appalachian music is all about.”

As the band took five they talked to The Smoky Mountain News about their latest CD and a few other musical anecdotes.

Balsam Range, based in Haywood County, is comprised of Marc Pruett on banjo, Caleb Smith on guitar, Darren Nicholson on mandolin, Tim Surrett on bass, and Buddy Melton on fiddle. All five sing lead on some songs and bring aspects of bluegrass, gospel and country music steeped in an Appalachian-meets-Grand Ole Opry style to their performances.

Smith’s favorite song off the latest CD is the title song “Last Train to Kittyhawk.” The guitarist feels the bands background sets them apart from other bluegrass ensembles.

“Our versatility is a big deal. People don’t expect to hear the diversity we bring, and not a lot of people are doing that,” Smith said.

Surrett declared he “plays the bass with a Led Zeppelin mentality,” and is grateful for the support Balsam Range has had.

“I never call people fans because I am making friends,” Surrett said. “It’s really nice to play this quality of music and go home at night.”CD release concert


So what is Balsam Range currently listening to when they are not performing?

Smith: Miles Davis

Melton: Osmond Brothers, Journey

Surrett: Miles Davis

Pruett: Louis Armstrong

Nicholson: Joe Nichols, Osmond Brothers

What advice would these bluegrass professionals give to younger musicians?

Smith: “Work together and do positive things.”

Melton: “Be comfortable with your own personal limitations. To do something great surround yourself with great musicians.”

Surrett: “Practice and learn to play together.”

Pruett: “Be open minded to growing. Be humble. Treat people fairly and have fun. Don’t let it consume you, and treat it as a business.”

Nicholson: “Be good to folks. Stay true to yourself, and play to the best of your abilities.”

How they would describe the band and/or their latest CD in one word:

Smith: “Influenced”

Melton: “Interesting”

Surrett: “Teamwork”

Pruett: “Productive”

Nicholson: “Sexy”

Bluegrass’ contemporary class

The term “contemporary bluegrass” is open to a ridiculous amount of interpretation. For some it signifies anything that strays even a little beyond the template set by Ralph Stanley, Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs — which means that damn near everything we hear nowadays that falls under the heading of bluegrass is “contemporary.”

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.

Newly formed Balsam Range features some of the finest

By Sarah Kucharski • Staff Writer

Balsam Range, a newly formed group of all-star pickers, will play a free concert at 7:30 p.m. Friday, March 16 at Haywood Community College.

An impressive collection from a bluegrass veteran

By Chris Cooper

It’s not unusual in music circles for one’s sound to be recognizable but the name to be mostly unknown. Such is the case for bluegrass veteran Curly Seckler.

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