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Man on a mission: Darren Nicholson on new album, new chapter

Darren Nicholson. (photo: Jeff Smith Photography) Darren Nicholson. (photo: Jeff Smith Photography)

On his way from performing at a Sunday church service in Highlands to an afternoon gig at Ole Smoky Distillery in Gatlinburg, Darren Nicholson pulled over somewhere outside of Cherokee, right where there was enough cell service to conduct a phone interview. 

There’s a lot going on in Nicholson’s life these days. At 38, the Canton-based artist recently celebrated his 20th year as a professional touring musician, with the last 15 spent as the mandolinist in Balsam Range — arguably one of the most successful, award-winning bluegrass acts of the 21st century thus far. 

And yet, Nicholson has always been someone on the move. Aside from the whirlwind touring/recording schedule for Balsam Range, he will soon release his fourth solo album, “Man On A Mission” (out Nov. 26). The Americana/country album is not only his debut for the storied Mountain Home Records (Arden), it’s also a life marker for Nicholson — a sincere, intricate soul in pursuit of the fruits of life, whether that be love or camaraderie, hard work or creative fulfillment. 

It’s not that Nicholson’s internal light went completely out a few years back. It was just really dim amid a plethora of personal obstacles. The light was down to a small ember that wasn’t getting enough spiritual oxygen from its surroundings. 

But, in his renewal as of late, Nicholson now carries a deep sense of rejuvenation in his heart and soul — onstage and in the studio.

Smoky Mountain News: You’ve had this long, bountiful career with Balsam Range and its label Mountain Home. What does this solo project with Mountain Home mean to you?

Darren Nicholson: Well, it’s like family over there, because bluegrass is a small enough world where you kind of know everybody. But, doing an electric record and kind of delving into the Americana/country world [with “Man On A Mission”], I don’t know everybody [in that scene]. 

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As far as the record label, I needed more support, more than just something I was trying to do myself. I wanted to make sure it was something that they were interested in, and they certainly were. I asked Jeff Collins to produce it, who has worked for the label for years. 

[With Jeff], I wanted to really get out of the box a little bit. I know what a record sounds like when I make it. I trust myself and my own producing. I just wanted to have somebody else in there to get me out of my comfort zone a little bit and push. 

I got to do all these songs I’ve written, where I just didn’t hear them in a bluegrass context. I had these songs, and I think they’re great songs. But, they’re not bluegrass songs. So, what do you do with them? I did a solo record and had a ball doing it. 

SMN: And what I’ve always appreciated about you is that your unique sound is a culmination of all your influences — bluegrass, country, rock, roots and mountain music. 

DN: Well, you can pay homage to the roots and tradition, and also be cutting edge and new at the same time. People think you have to be one thing or the other thing, but you don’t. Marty Stuart is a prime example of someone who’s always got a foot in the past and stood in the future at the same time — and he makes it work. 

I was brought up on traditional bluegrass, country and mountain music. But, that doesn’t mean I can’t write a new song and that doesn’t mean I can’t push myself and create something new, too. I can’t get away from sounding like myself, but I’m going to create new music. And, hopefully, when you do that, you got your own sound — if you’re not growing, you’re dying. 

SMN: Whether it’s conscious or subconscious, you saying “if you’re not growing, you’re dying” makes me wonder if that’s an underlying theme of “Man On A Mission” — this journey you’ve been on the last few years of finding yourself again.

DN: Yeah, for sure. This is a dream record for me. The lyrics “big dream wishes” is in the song “Man On A Mission” — that’s what this record is, a dream. Sometimes you do things because it feeds your soul and it pushes you to be better. 

And so, I’m big dream wishing on this record. It has inspired me and fired me up again, [waking up] each day and going for something new, trying something different and not being stagnant, you know? 

I feel like this is an awakening. We all go through periods. Life ebbs and flows. We go through good periods and bad periods. This is a lifestyle change for me. I’m tapping into a new energy, a new creativity, just a new way of thinking.

I love the quote, “when you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change.” It’s not that anything in my life is that much different. I’ve still got a lot of same people in my life. I’ve got the same family. I’ve got the same friends. I’ve got the same music jobs. 

But, I’ve just got a different attitude. Nothing has really changed except my attitude, how I appreciate things and value things more now — I just want to do better.

SMN: When you walk out the front door each day, you make a conscious decision how to approach the world. And you also realize the only thing you can control in life is how you react in a situation. 

DN: Exactly. I’m in control of that. I can’t control other people, places and things. But, I’m in control of how I react to it. You can deal with things negatively or you can figure out how to let things go and move forward. Let go or be dragged — I guess I just got tired of being dragged. 

 

Balsam Range Art of Music 

Darren Nicholson will join his band Balsam Range for its annual Art of Music Festival, which will take place Dec. 2-4 at the Lake Junaluska Conference and Retreat Center. 

Alongside two performances by bluegrass icons Balsam Range, there will also be appearances onstage by Chloe Agnew, John Driskell Hopkins, Blue Highway, Jeff Little Trio, The Cleverlys, Atlanta Pops Orchestra, and more. 

For information on the Art of Music, to purchase tickets, a full schedule of events, performers and activities, go to balsamrangeartofmusicfestival.com

For more on Nicholson, how to purchase his new solo album “Man On A Mission,” and to find out upcoming tour dates, click on darrennicholson.net

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