Bluegrass Raleigh

Top nominee Balsam Range stays in touch with the dark side of bluegrass

By David Menconi - dmenconi@newsobserver.com

NC politicians dance to Balsam Range’s bluegrass music

Watch as NC Reps. Joe Sam Queen and John Ager dance during a public performance Wednesday, June 10, 2015, outside the NC Legislative Building by Balsam Range, the International Bluegrass Music Association (IBMA) Entertainer of the Year. Video by E
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Watch as NC Reps. Joe Sam Queen and John Ager dance during a public performance Wednesday, June 10, 2015, outside the NC Legislative Building by Balsam Range, the International Bluegrass Music Association (IBMA) Entertainer of the Year. Video by E

If ever there were a time when you’d think Balsam Range would be in an optimistic frame of mind, it would be now.

The group won the IBMA award for song of the year in 2011 and is the reigning album-of-the-year champion for 2012’s “Papertown.” They’re up for four more awards this year, including entertainer of the year.

But you’d hardly know it from the tone of the Haywood County quintet’s latest album, “Five” (Mountain Home Music). It starts with a murder ballad, “Moon Over Memphis,” and it ends with “Everything That Glitters (Is Not Gold),” a bitter lament over a lover who departed for brighter lights.

“My wife is always concerned with how many songs I sing about women getting killed, like ‘Moon Over Memphis,’ ” says fiddler/singer Buddy Melton. “Bluegrass does tend to have murder ballads. I tell her not to worry, since I’m just singing and not writing ’em.”

Not ‘real upbeat’

Elsewhere on “Five” is “Chasing Someone Else’s Dreams,” a song steeped in day-job blues; the self-explanatory Civil War tale “From a Georgia Battlefield;” and songs with cheery titles such as “Too High a Price to Pay” and “The Future’s Not What It Used to Be.”

“Yeah, part of the sales pitch with this album is to give out anti-depressants with it,” cracks mandolinist Darren Nicholson. “But hey, that’s bluegrass and country. There ain’t a lot in either that’s real upbeat.”

Balsam Range does have reasons to be thankful, however, especially that Melton is back at full strength – a somewhat miraculous turn of events after a 2012 accident in which he was kicked in the head while loading cattle into a trailer. Melton suffered extensive injuries to his face, skull, nose and right eye, requiring major surgery. Two years on, he can joke about it.

“I, uh, used to look just like Brad Pitt, but the reconstruction surgery did not quite come out,” he deadpans. “Naw, they did a wonderful job. I’ve got a farm in Heywood County working with cattle, sheep, horses. It’s difficult to make a living on agricultural stuff so you end up working by yourself and in a hurry. That’s how it happened. It can be dangerous.

“I feel very blessed, especially after almost checking out,” Melton adds. “It made me realize how unpredictable life could be, but it’s always been that way. None of us intended this as a career. We were local guys off the road with similar desires and families, playing here and there for fun, and it just took off. I’m grateful for it all.”

Meantime, Balsam Range has Thursday night’s IBMA Awards to look forward to. Along with entertainer of the year, the group is up for vocal and instrumental group of the year; and Melton is nominated in the male-vocalist category.

“It’s great and all, but you don’t really think about awards or trying to make ‘an award-winning record,’ ” Nicholson says. “Everybody who was nominated against us last year, I look up to and love their music. Getting nominated at all is a complete shock, and a huge honor. As for winning well, the fact that we were up for album of the year just made me realize that no one else must have released an album last year.”

But Melton says the band was proud of “Papertown.”

“Especially because it was a struggle to put together,” he says. “Getting an award for that one was special.”

After playing at Thursday night’s award show, Balsam Range will play multiple performances Friday – including the free street festival. That might be their favorite part of the whole shindig.

‘Something for everybody’

“Last year, I saw so many young people there, which is just a shot in the arm to the whole culture of bluegrass,” Nicholson says. “So many people don’t know anything about the music or think the Avett Brothers are bluegrass. But they come to IBMA, hear people doing bluegrass, it’s a good experience, and they get into it.”

Adds Melton, “We hear all the time from people who say, ‘I thought I hated bluegrass, but I love what you do.’ I think bluegrass has something for everybody. It’s always been influenced by so many other styles – gospel, country, blues, Scotch-Irish things.”

“And that,” Nicholson concludes, “is what makes bluegrass so American: It’s been stolen from everything else!”

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