Democrat or Republican, conservative or liberal, when a bunch of suit-wearing state lawmakers break into clogging as a bluegrass band plays on the back porch of the Legislative Building, you just gotta grin.
The band – Balsam Range – was honored in June on both the House and Senate floors for how it “honors and preserves the heritage of traditional and roots music of North America and western North Carolina,” as the statement sponsored by Rep. Joe Sam Queen put it. Queen, who represents the band’s home county, Haywood, was the first of several cloggers to join in during a performance that preceded the reading of the statements in the afternoon.
“We’re proud of them, and we want to put them to work as ambassadors and we want to give them a little credit and a little acknowledgment,” Queen said. A similar statement, sponsored by Sen. Jim Davis, was read on the Senate floor.
The political honors were something new, but Balsam Range has racked up plaudits aplenty for its music in recent years. The band’s album “Papertown” was the International Bluegrass Music Association’s Album of the Year in 2013, and last year the band won Entertainer of the Year and Vocal Group of the Year honors. Fiddle player and singer Buddy Melton was named 2014’s Male Vocalist of the Year, and bass player Tim Surrett received a Mentor Award. This year, the band and its five members are nominated for eight more IBMA awards.
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Songs that spotlight North Carolina are all over Balsam Range’s five albums, including their latest, “Five.” Several fan favorites found their way into the set at the Legislative Building last summer, including “Last Train to Kitty Hawk,” “Papertown,” which tells the story of the town of Canton, and “Trains I Missed,” a 2011 IBMA Song of the Year winner that celebrates being right where you are.
You might think a band as hot as Balsam Range is now would have picked up and moved to Nashville a long time ago. But while some of the band’s members have spent time in Tennessee in their careers, they’re all back in Haywood County now.
“There’s nowhere like where we live,” said bass player Tim Surrett. “When you’re raised in those mountains, there’s something missing if you’re not looking at them.”
Practical matters, as much as sentimentality, also keep the band members close to their roots.
“Nashville’s not that big a help” for bluegrass, Surrett said. “Truthfully, living around Asheville is about as fertile ground for bluegrass as there is.”
With their record company, Mountain Home, nearby, along with several recording studios and a community full of talented musicians and supportive concertgoers, there’s little reason to come down from the mountain, Surrett said.
“I can see Cold Mountain from my front porch; I believe I’ll just stay where I am.”
Another perk of living in Western North Carolina is its proximity to Raleigh, which makes for a relatively short drive for World of Bluegrass, as well as a nice bit of bragging when Balsam Range plays out of state.
“It does make you proud, as a North Carolinian, to have your state capital be the capital of bluegrass,” said Surrett. Now serving as vice chairman of IBMA’s board of directors, he characterized the relationship between Raleigh and IBMA as “greatly successful” and applauded World of Bluegrass’ past in the city as well as its potential.
“Raleigh’s become a great big part of Balsam Range,” he said. “We’re so thankful for how we’ve been treated down there and gratified by it, so we can’t wait to get back down there.”
Stacy Chandler: firstname.lastname@example.org
Balsam Range’s 2015 IBMA nominations
▪ Entertainer Of The Year
▪ Vocal Group of the Year
▪ Song of the Year: “Moon Over Memphis” (Mark W. Winchester, songwriter)
▪ Album of the Year: “Five”
▪ Gospel Recorded Performance of the Year: “Stacking Up the Rocks”
▪ Instrumental Recorded Performance of the Year: “Backdraft (You Light It, You Fight It)”
▪ Male Vocalist of the Year: Buddy Melton
▪ Bass Player of the Year: Tim Surrett
If you go
Who: Wide Open Bluegrass with Steep Canyon Rangers, Alison Krauss & Union Station featuring Jerry Douglas, Balsam Range, Gibson Brothers, Claire Lynch Band, Frank Solivan & Dirty Kitchen, “Orthophonic Joy” and Blue Highway
When: Starting at noon Friday, Balsam Range plays about 6:15 p.m.
Where: Red Hat Amphitheater, 500 S. McDowell St., Raleigh
Cost: $30-$60 per day for IBMA members, $35-$70 per day for non-members