News/Thoughts

Blue In Carolina

This summer marks 13 years since the band Carolina Blue first got its start. That’s when friends Bobby Powell and Tim Jones, together with the help from their friend Woddy Platt (Steep Canyon Rangers) went in to the studio to record their first record, Nothing So Blue.

“I went by Woody’s house to pitch him some songs,” Bobby remembers. “He and I both had been working in a band for a guy named Roy Chapman. Roy had all these great songs that he’d written. Roy had recently been diagnosed with cancer, and had a lot of medical bills stacking up. Roy sent me to Woody to see if he’d be interested in cutting any of his songs. That turned into me singing for him some stuff that’d I’d written as well.” Woody liked the music but it wasn’t really the style he was playing at the time, so he encouraged Bobby to record them instead.

“I’d never made a bluegrass record before,” Bobby recalled. “So I got Tim involved. We cut the record and Woddy produced it for us. I think most all of the Rangers played on it at one point or another. Roy even played on it with is. Woody pulled some songs from outside, and we also had several originals that Tim and I had written, along with a couple of Roy’s originals. It was a good album. The regional radio station here started playing some tracks from it, and my phone started ringing with requests to book the band. We didn’t even have a band as we were still working for Roy.”

Meeting The Demand
So Bobby pulled a band together to play these dates on the side while he was still playing for Roy. When his health began to cause him to slow down, Bobby and Tim started booking more dates as Carolina Blue, adding Reese Combs on bass. “It just grew from there. We spent the first seven or eight years just playing fairly local,” Bobby said. In 2011 they booked in at Reno Fest on a whim. “We’d never been to any kind of large festival, but we ended up winning the South Carolina state band championship, which was really a surprise.”

“We still just kept doing regional stuff around our home for a few years, until around 2016 we decided we were going into the studio to cut another album.” It was still mostly private functions and small venues, like restaurants and social clubs. In 2015 they all sat down to evaluate where the band was headed. All in their 30s at that point, they wondered if they cut another record, how far could they go. “So Tim and I pulled together all the songs we’d written over the past few years. Everything was original on the album. When we got done with it, I pitched it to Rebel Records, but there wasn’t any real interest. But their one suggestion was that we needed to have a recognizable song on it. So we went back to the studio and added Bill Monroe’s “Rocky Road Blues.”

This time Bobby contacted friend, Tim Surrett (Balsam Range) to add some liner notes to the project for them. Tim was so enthusiastic about the project that he sent copies to Norman Adams (promoter) and Kyle Cantrell (XM’s Bluegrass Junction). “A week later I got an email from Kyle saying he liked the record and that he’d be adding our version of “Rock Road Blues” to the rotation. That was the first real air play we’d ever had. Another cut they played that Tim had written, “Detroit City” ended up in the top 10 on the charts that year. That exposure was crucial to the initial success of our band. People were starting to know who we were,” Bobby said.

Full Steam Ahead
Their next record, Songs Of Kentucky Grass, saw increased success on the airplay charts as well as the festival circuit. With a solid traditional bluegrass sound, their roots grounded in Carolina culture, and their solid faith in God, Carolina Blue has become what Bobby laughingly calls a “12 year overnight success.” This humble band from Brevard, North Carolina went from playing local BBQ joints in their hometown to playing venues and festivals country wide; “things we only dreamed about,” Bobby said.

In 2019, they performed 120 shows all over the country following their top five hit record, I Hear Bluegrass Calling Me, and the chart success of the number one single, “Rusty Rails.” Three additional songs from that record also charted well. So well that the IBMA nominated them for three awards this past fall; New Artist of the Year, Album of the Year, and Instrumental Recording of the Year for “Fried Taters & Onions,” penned by the band’s banjoist, James McDowell. The band’s newest member, Aynsley Porchak (fiddle) was also the recipient of the 2018 IBMA Momentum Instrumentalist Award.

Bobby says the band’s not a partying band, which helps them stay grounded from the hectic lifestyle that comes with a traveling band. “Most of us still have some sort of work at home when we’re not out playing,” he said. “We’re all conservative Christians, and we reflect that as a band, too.”

Image Matters
The band also pays close attention to their image on stage. Porchak’s often changing headwear is a throwback to her interest in 1940s and 50s era clothing. So the male members of the band have adopted the period style of dress with suits, ties and matching hats. “We try to dress nicely for our audiences,” Bobby said. “Tim and I had two mentors in North Carolina – Roy Chapman and Joe Byers. They taught us to try to dress better than the folks who are paying money to see us play. They told us to respect our audience. And we do. They really helped put us where we are.”

In January of this year, SPBGMA honored Carolina Blue with eight nominations that culminated into five prestigious awards – Entertainers of the Year; Bluegrass Band of the Year (Overall); – Vocal Group of the Year; and Album of the Year for I Hear Bluegrass Calling Me.

With a new record one the way and a new single already making the rounds, and a solid following for the band, Carolina Blue just might have the kind of wind in their sails that it takes to make this a next level band. They sure have all the ingredients that make that possible from our perspective.

By Greg Tutwiler

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