Strings Done Differently

Balsam Range, over the past 11 years, has played themselves into perhaps one of the most solid, consistent, contemporary bluegrass acts out on the road today. The same five guys who first got together in Darren Nicholson’s (mandolin, vocals) kitchen back in 2007, are the same five guys still playing together today, and are now on tour with their ground breaking new CD, Mountain Overture, recorded with the Atlanta Pops Orchestra.

Nicholson, along with fellow band mates Dr. Marc Pruett – banjo; Buddy Melton – fiddle, vocals; Tim Surrett – bass, vocals; and Caleb Smith – guitar, vocals; have recorded six CDs together, and won numerous awards including 2014 IBMA Entertainers of the Year, and Vocal Group of the Year.

Not Their First Rodeo
Already veteran musicians before they started out on this new venture together, each had become a noted musician in their own journey, and were each actually slowing down and ready to get off the hectic touring circuit, which is so much a part of working bands. “We had all been band leaders,” Darren told me. “We had all been different parts of working and touring bands, but were all ready to be closer to home, and just play music more regionally.”

“Originally we were more focused on just playing here in western North Carolina where we all live,” he said. “The more we recorded albums, the music kind of got out there. We had several number one songs, (I think now we’ve had like more than 20 number one singles.) so our plan of just playing around here kind of got changed over the years. We’re now back out playing the same festivals that I was playing when I decided I was tired of traveling. I guess it was just meant for me to be out on the road,” he quipped.

Closer To Home
Buddy Melton had already released a few solo projects in 2006, with Marc and Tim helping on both of those projects. “At the end of 2006 we all found ourselves back at home in Haywood County,” Darren said. “Marc had toured with Ricky Skaggs, I’d been on the road with Aecia Nugent; Buddy had been with a rockabilly band out of Nashville, and Tim had just come home from the Southern gospel music world. Since we all lived within a few minutes of each other, we said, ‘hey, let’s book some shows,’ and you know, the rest is history.”

Darren remembered the first time the guys played together was in his kitchen around January of 2007. “It was just a jam session to see what we had together. When we did our first real show, we didn’t even have a name for the band,” he said. “We did the John Boy and Billy comedy classic at Grove Park Inn in Nashville. Our first official show as Balsam Range wasn’t until March of 2007.”

“This whole thing was kind of Marc and Buddy’s brain child, because they were already playing regionally together. Tim and I found ourselves at home, and Mark said to us, ‘you know I’m not getting younger. I think there’s another window for me to play music at a higher level, and I would like to do that.’ “So we got together and jammed, and immediately had this feeling that, ‘wow this could be something special right here.’ So we went in and started recording.”

Keeping The Balance
Balsam Range is a full time band as far as most bands go, but the guys also worked day jobs along the way. “Mark just retired though,” Darren said. “Buddy’s very close to retirement; and all I do is play music for a living. I have a side project, and I freelance doing studio work. Caleb builds guitars. But as far as touring goes, we’re still weekend warriors. We don’t do tours where we’re out for like three or four weeks at a time. We’re usually more of a Thursday through Sunday, and Friday/ Saturday type thing; the typical bluegrass band schedule.”

“That schedule enables us to have a balance between road life and family life. That was a large part of why we had all gotten off the road anyway. We all had children at the time. Now they’re growing up, and graduating high school, so that does free us up to travel a little more. We’re all still really enjoying this though. We feel really lucky to still be the same five guys together as a band after 11 years. Not many bands get to do that. We really try not to overlook how lucky we are to still be doing what we love at this level.”

Branching Out
One of the connections Balsam Range has made over the years is with musician John Driscoll Hopkins of the Zack Brown Band. “John had heard our song, “Blue Mountain,” (which is still our most requested song on Sirius XM radio.) He emailed us out of the blue one day and said, ‘hey would you like to get together to play and sing.’ That led to several shows together, and we ended up recording an album with him. That led to us opening several shows for their band, and we’ve even gotten to be a part of their music festival in Charleston, SC,.”

The band actually got to be in a movie with John as well; Careful What You Wish For. “John has a theater background and he ended up being cast in this movie. He asked us to be in with him, so we were in a scene as a bar band. It was a cool experience. We got to spend a few days there shooting; that was a lot of fun.”

“There has just been a lot of cool things that has happened because of our relationship with John. That’s really how we got saddled up with the Atlanta Pops,” Darren said, in reference to their latest CD project.

Changing It Up
“Hopkins recorded a Christmas album a couple of years ago with an orchestra, the Atlanta Pops, and we recorded one of the tracks on it. That record just sounded so amazing with the Atlanta Pops backing the band. We’re not the first bluegrass band to record with an orchestra of course; I think maybe the first bluegrass band to do that was the Osbourne Brothers in the early 70s. So it’s not a new idea, but not a lot of people have done it. I think the biggest part of Balsam Range’s sound is that we all like different kinds of music, not just bluegrass,” he said.

“We had some of our songs scored. And since then, we’ve done several shows with the Pops. Now we have the sheet music so we can play with any group. We recently did an event at Western Carolina University with the student orchestra there. We can just take our sheet music to Philadelphia, or to Boston, and we can play with the orchestras in all the different cities. Once we heard the music live it was like, ‘gosh, this is amazing! We’ve got to record this. It’s just captivating to hear those big string sections and how they enhance and add to a song. It’s just unreal. So we took some of our favorite and most requested Balsam Range tunes and recorded them on one album with the orchestra. You still get the major bluegrass element in the music,” he said. “It doesn’t change that. You know the song is still the same, it’s just enhanced. It’s just something that’s novel, and that’s exciting for us.”

By Greg Tutwiler