Balsam Range steps into Grand Ole Opry circle

By Mary Ann Enloe | Feb 14, 2013
Donated photo

The Grand Ole Opry is the granddaddy of country music shows. It's where the biggest and the best country and bluegrass artists are showcased, and on March 8, Haywood's own Balsam Range will take the stage.

The Opry is what put Nashville on the map as Music City, U.S.A. It's where bluegrass and country music makers want to be. Most of them don't get there. The legendary show got its start in 1925 advertising insurance policies. Just five years after the birth of commercial radio in the United States, the National Life and Accident Insurance Company built Nashville radio station WSM — "We Shield Millions" — and hired former newspaper reporter George D. Hay, "The Solemn Old Judge," as program director. Hay immediately renamed the WSM Barn Dance, dubbing it the Grand Ole Opry.   Thus began the stuff that dreams are made of.

The Grand Ole Opry came home to the venerable Ryman Auditorium in 1943.  That year NBC started airing the Roy Acuff segment of the show sponsored by Prince Albert Tobacco, on some 140 NBC affiliates. Radio introduced the Grand Ole Opry to the rest of the nation and soon Opry stars like Ernest Tubb, Red Foley, Hank Williams, Bill Monroe, Little Jimmy Dickens and Minnie Pearl were playing to audiences from Carnegie Hall to the capitals of Europe.

Dickens turned 92 in December and still appears on the show. The Grand Ole Opry moved to a sparkling new auditorium a few miles from downtown Nashville in 1974 but continues to broadcast from the Ryman during winter months.

Haywood County's white-hot bluegrass-and-more band Balsam Range, 2012 IBMA Song of the Year winner for "Trains I Missed,"  takes to the Grand Ole Opry stage March 8 with John Driskell Hopkins of the Zac Brown Band. Balsam Range founder Marc Pruett, a Grammy-Award winner who played banjo with bluegrass icon Ricky Skaggs, has often appeared on the revered stage as have Balsam Range band members Tim Surrett and Darren Nicholson.

It'll be a first for Caleb Smith and Buddy Melton. "Performing on the Grand Ole Opry is one of those things you always dream of doing but feels out of reach," said Melton.

"It's kind of like playing Little League baseball and dreaming of the major leagues only to find yourself in the World Series throwing the first pitch." Pruett agreed. "You think about all those others who have stood there before you, the contributions they've made, the audiences they reached. It is inspiring," he said.

For years local musicians have managed to make their mark at the Grand Ole Opry — names like Raymond Fairchild, the Crowe Brothers, and one who according to Pruett has probably played on the show more than anyone else around here — International Bluegrass Music Association award winning banjo wizard Steve Sutton who started on the Grand Ole Opry in 1974 at age 18 and played regularly with Jimmy Martin, "Mr. Good & Country," while earning his degree at Western Carolina University.

He later toured with Rhonda Vincent and Alecia Nugent and appeared on the Grand Ole Opry with both of them. Sutton recently shared Opry stories and photographs at his kitchen table. He still has his first Grand Ole Opry paycheck stub for $28.66. "I was so proud of that," he said. "I couldn't wait to show my check and my union card to Jim Crocker (longtime Tuscola band director)."

Sutton, a graduate of Tuscola High School, had played banjo with the Tuscola Marching Band in an award-winning show Crocker commissioned to feature Sutton's skills. In September 1974 Jimmy Martin wrote to Sutton, congratulating the Waynesville teenager on his full-ride scholarship to college. "I know your Mom and Dad are proud of you," it said. "You are a well-behaved boy."

Sutton's mother framed it. While on the Grand Ole Opry, Sutton got to know folks like Merle Haggard, Roy Acuff,  Little Jimmy Dickens, Ronnie Milsap, Bill Monroe and many more. He performed with a lot of them. Snapshots Sutton hadn't looked at in years triggered tales of good times and good friends.

Balsam Range mandolin player and vocalist Darren Nicholson owes his first Grand Ole Opry appearance to Sutton. "Darren and I were playing locally with Hazel Creek and I got a phone call one Wednesday morning from Alecia Nugent who had met me when I worked with Rhonda Vincent," said Sutton. "She asked me if I could play with her that Friday and Saturday on the Opry.  When I asked her who the other band members were, she said she didn't have a band. She was going to put one together by Friday and could I bring a mandolin player with me? When I called Darren to ask him if he wanted to play on the Grand Ole Opry, he thought I was joking."

That chance weekend gig turned into a full-time job for both Sutton and Nicholson who signed on to tour with Nugent for the next three years. Sutton said he wasn't nervous the first time he stepped onto the Grand Ole Opry stage. "I was young and raring to go," he said. "I didn't know I was supposed to be nervous." He also didn't know about the circle. "When I walked offstage, somebody asked me how it felt to stand in the circle and I asked 'what circle'?" he said with a laugh. The circle is a slab of dark oak wood cut from center stage at Ryman Auditorium when the Grand Ole Opry moved from the  downtown church. It's now the heart of the Opryland stage. "After I learned what it was, I thought about it every time I went onstage," said Sutton. "I was standing where Elvis and all the others had stood."

As for his early mentor Raymond Fairchild of Maggie Valley, Sutton echoed something Pruett had said earlier: "Raymond never went onstage at the Opry without a .38 special in his back pocket," he said. Prolific songwriter and singer Tom T. Hall wrote a song about Fairchild, "World According to Raymond." The .38 special made it into the lyrics.

No longer just the sound of the South, country music reaches around the world. Fifty-thousand watt stations have been replaced by satellite radio with channels such as "Willy's Roadhouse" and "Bluegrass Junction." Josh Crowe of Haywood County's Crowe Brothers said last summer at Maggie Valley's Stomping Grounds that Sirius/XM radio is helping everybody who plays this music. One of the things the satellite giant does is broadcast the Grand Ole Opry. "It's a great honor to be asked to play on the Opry, and it is to be respected," said Sutton. "The Grand Ole Opry is the Carnegie Hall and the Superbowl of this business."

Balsam Range will know what that feels like March 8 when they walk to the circle.