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Bright sunny south: A conversation with Barry Bales

Barry Bales will perform in Brevard June 1. Donated photo Barry Bales will perform in Brevard June 1. Donated photo

Barry Bales has 15 Grammy Awards and 23 International Bluegrass Music Association (IBMA) honors, including four IBMA “Bass Player of the Year” trophies. But, today, Bales is trying to get all of his farm chores done before an afternoon rainstorm rolls in. 

“This farm has been in our family since 1882,” Bales said of his homestead near Greeneville, Tennessee. “I lived in Nashville in the early days [of performing], but I moved back here in 1993. Coming off the road and getting on the tractor, I call that ‘diesel therapy’ — you’re outside, in the sunshine, you have that connection.”

Since 1990, Bales has been a member of Alison Krauss & Union Station, which remains one of the most beloved and successful acts in the bluegrass and country music realms. A blend of intricate acoustic melodies and pop sensibilities, all wrapped around Krauss’ songbird voice, the ensemble became a smash crossover act.

“We’ve always been true to playing music that we want to play,” Bales mused on Union Station. “We’ve never chased anything. We’ve never chased fads or fame. I’ve always been really proud of the music that we’ve made from the standpoint that it’s a group of people that can play anything.”

That rich, vibrant influence of Union Station still reverberates to this very day, ultimately paving the path to where we stand in the bluegrass world with current powerhouse arena performers like Billy Strings, Sierra Hull, Molly Tuttle and Sierra Ferrell.

“When it comes to entertainment, when it comes to an escape, when it comes to music, bluegrass and acoustic music is real.” Bales said. “And I think one of the main reasons for the popularity [of bluegrass right now] is that — and it may be a cyclical thing — when there’s so much turmoil and heaviness going on in everybody’s lives, people are grasping for something real.”

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Within Union Station, the standup bassist teamed up with the legendary Jerry Douglas, the dobro icon later pulling Bales into his Flatt & Scruggs tribute project The Earls of Leicester, the group now a marquee act on the touring circuit.

Smoky Mountain News: Are there any similarities you notice between working and running a farm and running a band and being a musician?

Barry Bales: Well, one of the similarities is that it’s hardly ever 8-to-5 turn the lights out and go home. You always have to be ready for the unexpected and you just have to stay at it until the work is done. If you’re a musician and you’re rehearsing or you’ve got a snafu in your travel or whatever, you can’t just clock out and go home — you’ve got to put the work in and get the job done.

SMN: Growing up in East Tennessee, you’re talking about a hotbed of bluegrass music. How did you slide into becoming a musician?

BB: My dad was a guitar and mandolin player. And he had a big record collection. He was equal parts the first-generation of bluegrass — Flatt & Scruggs, Stanley Brothers, Bill Monroe, Mac Wiseman — and then he also had [country gold] — Buck Owens, Bob Wills, Merle Haggard, Ray Price.

So, my love of it came through him. When I was about 10 years old, I told him I wanted to play guitar. And he had the wherewithal and the smarts to say, “Okay, well we need to get you real lessons with a real teacher.”

Through that, I got hooked into the scene at a local music store. I was probably about 12 when we started going there on Saturdays. I would take lessons and hang out. And that was where everybody went and hung out and jammed all day. In that same bunch of people hanging out there, I met [guitarist] Tim Stafford, [mandolinist] Adam Steffey, [guitarist] James Allen Shelton — a “who’s who” of East Tennessee musicians and people that would go on to be friends, peers, band mates or all of the above.

I was just very fortunate to get introduced and locked into that scene at a pretty early age. When I was growing up, I mean the number of really good local bands within a 50-mile radius was just staggering.

And of what I know, what I have built on came from just growing up here, it was almost osmosis. You were just always surrounded by bluegrass and great music, whether it was on the radio or you’d go to town on a Saturday and somebody would be having a grand opening of a hardware store or something and there’d be a band playing in there — it was just always around and it was always quality.

SMN: Why the bass? Why was that the instrument you could best express yourself musically?

BB: I don’t know why. I started out on guitar, then went to banjo and fooled around with a bunch of different stuff. But, I was always enamored with the bass. Anytime I was at a jam session or somewhere where there was one, if I had the chance, I’d pick it up and fool around with it. And it just seemed like that was home. It came more naturally. It kind of made more sense to me. This is it, I found my instrument — this is what I’m supposed to play.

Want to go?

The third annual North Carolina Guitar Celebration concert will be held at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, June 1, at the Brevard Music Center.

Hosted by guitar legend Bryan Sutton, the performance will include appearances by Del McCoury, Jerry Douglas, Sara and Sean Watkins (of Nickel Creek), Woody Platt, Barry Bales, Jerron Paxton, Kaia Kater, Chris Eldridge, Jake Workman, Courtney Hartman, Michael Daves, Charlotte Carrivick, Casey Driessen and Bennett Sullivan.

Tickets start at $32 per person with premium seating available. Special discounts will be given to children and college students.

To learn more about the event and/or to purchase tickets, go to blueridgeguitarcamp.com/concert.

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