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‘I hear the Mountains calling me home’

By Paul Viau | Dec 01, 2016
Photo by: Wayne Ebinger IN THE MOUNTAIN LIMELIGHT — The five gifted musicians of Balsam Range fill the night air with music in Canton in this 2016 concert. From left, Marc Pruett, Tim Surrett, Buddy Melton, Darren Nicholson and Caleb Smith. Hear Balsam Range and more at the Art of Music Festival Dec. 2-3 at Lake Junaluska.

In the hills and hollers of Western North Carolina, the music weaves and wanders seamlessly through the countryside. It moves and motivates — connecting instrument to instrument, ear to ear, heart to heart and soul to soul.

This music lightens the loads of mountain people, inspires them to dig deep in times of trouble and rejoice in the promise of another day — to look inward for answers, upward for meaning and praise the Lord in thanksgiving for all.

Yes, it is music, especially mountain music, that is the fabric that connects, comforts, lifts and motivates us. And when great musicians connect in the backdrop of this breathtakingly beautiful land — you get the likes of Balsam Range.

All five members of this Grammy and IBMA award-winning bluegrass band proudly call Western North Carolina home. All five grew up in these mountains, each embracing his own music heritage and pursuing a unique and successful career.

In 2007 — nearly a decade ago — they jammed together just for fun, then banded together to shape the future of bluegrass.

These are their backstories.

Marc Pruett — Pickin’ a Bluegrass Path

The elder member of Balsam Range, Marc Pruett, has been making music longer than some of the band members have been alive. His passion for country music started as a young boy.

Every day he would hurry home from school, throw down his books, grab a quick snack and tune into Waynesville’s local country radio station, WHCC.

Peg Frye’s ‘Cornbread Matinee’ started at 3:30 p.m. and Pruett’s mother insisted Marc begin his homework by 4 p.m.

One day, ‘Country Cornbread’ featured Flatt & Scruggs, and the young Pruett turned to his mother and said, “What is the instrument that man is playing?”

“Honey, It’s a banjo,” she replied.

“Well, I want one for Christmas,” Pruett exclaimed.

So the following Christmas, in 1962, at the age of 11, Marc Pruett got his first banjo.

He started picking and playing with his friends, hanging around other country musicians and in his own words, “taught himself all he could about playing the banjo.”

While at Western Carolina University, Pruett worked summers at Ghost Town in the Sky, playing at the Red Barn Playhouse. There he met James Howard Nash, aka “Panhandle Pete” — the original one-man band.

“He was a fine old man, and a great showman. I learned so much from him,” said Pruett.

While still at Western, Pruett made his first appearance on the Grand Ole Opry playing with Jimmy Martin.

In 1973 Pruett also worked for James Monroe, son of Bill Monroe, who is widely credited for being ‘the father of bluegrass music.’ Bill Monroe recorded a live double-album that year at his festival in Bean Blossom, Indiana, and Marc Pruett’s name was called out. The same year, Pruett became friends with Ricky Skaggs, and played on Skaggs’ first album in 1974.

Pruett has been on the road with Skaggs many times and played on five of Skaggs’ albums, including his Grammy Award-winning bluegrass album, Bluegrass Rules, in 1999.

Throughout the years, Pruett has maintained a strong, local presence in WNC. He played with a number of local bands and for five years led a house band for Bill Stanley’s Bluegrass and Barbecue in Asheville, playing mountain music five or more nights per week — followed by a nearly four-year-stand at The Fiddlin’ Pig.

Pruett also owned and operated a music store in Asheville for 12 years — overseeing as many as 15 teachers of music and Pruett, himself, teaching as many as 96 students each week.

When Pruett and his wife started a family, he came off the road with Ricky Skaggs and played with a local band, ‘Whitewater Bluegrass,’ for 10 years. During this time, Pruett and fellow Balsam Range member, Buddy Melton, became friends and started jamming’ with Darren Nicholson.

After one of those sessions, Pruett asked, “Guys, this is a pretty good sounding band. You think we ought to book some shows?”

As it turns out, Pruett had already booked a show, but didn’t have a band.

And as they say, ‘The rest is history.’

Tim Surrett — Rooted in Gospel Music

From an early age, Tim Surrett was captivated by mountain music. Surrett’s father played guitar and was lead vocalist for a small country and bluegrass band, playing at what Surrett calls, “All the animal gatherings” — referring to the Moose, Elks and other local lodges.

Surrett accompanied his father — not musically — but by tagging along to so many performances that he boasts, “I was raised in a Moose Lodge.”

As a boy, Surrett played sports (football and baseball) during the week and played music on the weekends up until high school.

“Once I realized that I wasn’t big enough to make the NFL, I took a path I thought I wouldn’t get killed in, and joined the marching band,” said Surrett. He was in the drum section, citing Pisgah High School band teacher, Greg Wilson, for his patience and encouragement.

At age 14, Surrett also started playing electric bass with various country and bluegrass bands on the weekends — often playing at church gatherings.

“I grew up in a church,” said Surrett. “It was a God-send. It turned my life around.”

In the spring of his senior year at Pisgah High School, Surrett was asked to join a traveling gospel band. As it says on his Balsam Range profile, “He jumped on a bus right out of high school and began his musical career” — with The Happy Travelers.

Surrett went on to play with Squire Parsons for two years, The Isaacs for six years and the iconic gospel group, The Kingsmen for 10 years, before joining Balsam Range in 2007.

Surrett’s musical accomplishments over the years are too numerous to mention.

For his day job — All the Balsam Range players have at least one — Tim Surrett is co-owner of Balsam Range’s recording label, Mountain Home, and staff producer for Pisgah Ridge Records and Organic Records.

Surrett is also a very active studio player, and from his office at Crossroads Recording Studio in Arden, is also in a good position to sit in on many sessions.

As for his musical connections with the other members of Balsam Range — Surrett is a long-time friend of Marc Pruett, who often played with his dad’s band. He knew Caleb Smith from the group Harvest and met Darren Nicholson (small world) at a Pisgah High School football game.

Buddy Melton — The Golden Voice

Compared to the other members of Balsam Range, Buddy Melton got a late start singing and playing music. His family wasn’t really into music, but as Buddy said, “I grew up in Haywood County, so music was all around me … and I was a country dancer.”

In wasn’t until Melton was in college that he “officially started playing acoustic music.”

His roommate at Western was interested in playing, and returned after a one school break with a banjo. At the end of Melton’s next break, he ‘plucked’ the decorative fiddle from its place of honor on the Melton family living room wall, and brought it back to WCU with him.

As Melton recalls the moment, “I got that fiddle set up and tuned it so I could play, then just started making some horrible noises.”

“Between the banjo and the fiddle it was pretty rough on the folks at the Leatherwood Dorm there at Western.”

But Melton was not discouraged. He started playing music by ear, making the rounds, meeting other musicians and exposing himself to a variety of music styles.

He met an ‘older gentleman’ from Waynesville named Bill Phillips, who became a big part of Melton’s early musical life.

“Bill had a big influence on a lot of young musicians, because he enjoyed teaching and had the patience of Job,” remembered Melton.

“He took me under his wing, taught me a lot of fiddle tunes and brought me over to his house to jam with other musicians.”

Melton met Gene Brown at WCU, who had a weekly jam at his house every Wednesday night. At one jam, Melton met a group of musicians with a sound he had never heard before. Their band was New Ground — Joe McElroy, Randy Burgess, Gary Downs, Eddy Rose and Jerry Reece.

Melton was blown away with their really tight arrangements and strong vocals.

“I never sang before, said Melton.” Singing wasn’t my thing. But I learned ‘Blue Moon Kentucky’ on the fiddle because nobody would sing it. So, in order to play it, I had to learn how to sing.”

Melton started jamming with their band and working with McElroy on harmonies. Their sessions would run into the wee hours of the morning. Soon Buddy Melton was a member of New Ground, and played with them for the next five years.

After New Ground, Melton started playing with the gospel band, Rock Springs Reunion, with Marc Pruett, his brother, Matt, and Ralph and Angie Toomey.

“Ralph and Angie are terrific singers and I got to learn harmony parts from them,” said Melton.

Around this time, Kevin Duckett of Smoky Mountain Roasters had an organized jam every week, where Melton met fellow Waynesville musician, Milan Miller. Melton and Miller became close friends, but soon after, Miller moved to Nashville.

But it wasn’t long before Miller called Melton and asked him to play a show with them.

“That show turned into a five-year band called Jubil Foster,” said Melton.

“That band probably had as much of an impact on Balsam Range’s music as anything else.”

In fact, Jubil Foster players Milan Miller, Mark Bumgardner and Mark W. Winchester have written the bulk of Balsam Range’s songs.

Caleb Smith — Faithful student of the guitar

In his boyhood home in Canton, Caleb Smith was practically surrounded by guitars.

His father, pastor Steve Smith, played the guitar, along with his brothers, both grandfathers and one uncle.

“Mom has tons of pictures of me carrying around a guitar as a little kid,” said Smith.

“And when I was seven or eight, I knew I wanted to start playing something — but I didn’t want to play guitar. I wanted to play something different.”

Smith’s first instrument of choice was the banjo, then he gravitated to mandolin at age 9-10.

“But I didn’t have anyone to teach me,” said Smith. “So I struggled.”

One Thanksgiving weekend, long-time friends of the Smith family visited from Raleigh and brought along a banjo. Better still, they brought along bootlegged music cassettes of J.D. Crowe and the New South, Hot Rise — Untold stories, featuring Tim O’Brien, and Lonesome River Band.

Smith was just 10 or 11 years old at the time, but it was a pivotal moment in his life.

“They introduced the family to Bluegrass,” remembers Smith. “I’ll never forget it.”

Smith became a big fan of cassettes after that, and whenever his mother took the kids to the library, Smith would go straight to the audio cassette tapes.

One week, he checked out the Tony Rice tape, Me and my guitar.

“That changed my life, said Smith. “ I didn’t hate the guitar anymore. I wanted to play like that.”

So at age 12, he picked up his dad’s Martin D-35 and started digging more and more into Tony Rice.

“I listened to everything he did — from his jazz days with the David Grisman Quartet to his solo career with modern acoustic jazz guitar,” said Smith. “Once that bug bit, I learned all that stuff and loved it.”

“The only problem was that no one else could play it, so I couldn’t jam with anyone, until I met Zane Fairchild.”

Smith and Fairchild spent many long sessions perfecting their guitar styles, and it paid off.

When Smith was 18, he met Tony Rice — the guitar player that had so inspired him.

“I got to play for him,” said Smith, and Rice complimented him by saying, “You sound a lot like me.”

Rice then challenged Smith to develop his own style, saying, “I want to hear you play.”

These days, Caleb Smith takes great pride when fans come up to him after a performance and say, “You don’t sound like anyone else.”

Caleb Smith has been perfecting his flat pick guitar style for several years, performing professionally with the Bryson City gospel and bluegrass band, Smoky Mountain Boys and as a founding member of the gospel/ bluegrass band, Harvest — whose lofty mission was “Sharing the gospel through bluegrass music.”

Harvest was critically acclaimed for their musical artistry, as well as for the many, original Caleb Smith songs.

At the time that all the stars came together in perfect alignment to form Balsam Range, Smith had just left Harvest.

“The life of the band was done,” said Smith. “And it seemed like I was just spinning my wheels.”

Fortunately for Smith, he had a hobby to fall back on, that has turned into another passion and a very rewarding business. Caleb Smith makes guitars — finely crafted, highly sought-after guitars.

About his day job as a ‘guitarchitect,’ Smith states for the record, “This is my main squeeze. This is my livelihood. What I do for a living … to make money … is creating things, and I’m very thankful for that.”

Darren Nicholson — Classic Country Story

Like most of the members of Balsam Range, Darren Nicholson grew up around music. His father, Hayes Nicholson, was a championship old time fiddle and guitar player.

During the 1950-60s many Haywood and Jackson County families moved to Washington State to work in the logging boom, including the Nicholsons.

It was a great opportunity for WNC musicians — in fact, Washington hosted an annual music festival during that time, called The Tarheel Picnic.

The Nicholsons moved back to Jackson County, a few months before Darren was born — “so he could grow up around family,” but Darren’s parents divorced when he was 10, and he and his mother moved to Enka.

“This was a pivotal moment in my music,” recalls Nicholson. “When I went to Enka, I got to be around whole different bunch of musicians in the Asheville area.”

Nicholson was in the strings program in middle and high school, playing classical violin. His instructor, Lee Metcalf, introduced him to many great local musicians, including fiddler, Arvil Freeman; mandolin player, Ralph Lewis; and banjo players Marc Pruett and Steve Sutton.

When Nicholson was 14-15, he played professionally with his father during the summers. They entertained tourists with mountain music as they exited the train in the Nantahala Gorge.

On one of drives to Nantahala, they listened to a tape of the Osborne Bothers.

“I was captivated with Bobby Osborne’s singing and he played the mandolin, so I just naturally gravitated to the mandolin,” Nicholson said.

At 16, Nicholson was playing the mandolin exclusively. Then his career took a hiatus.

“My junior and senior year, I quit playing music,” said Nicholson.

When asked why, he said, “I had been playing music all my life; I just wanted to enjoy being a normal kid.”

That ‘normalized’ Darren Nicholson won a scholarship to UNC- Greensboro, but “music kept calling me.”

Steve Sutton got Nicholson, then 19, a job playing the Grand Ole Opry. He played with Alecia Nugent several nights per week — performing at both ‘The Opry’ and Ryman Auditorium. He also toured with her band and recorded with the group on Rounder Records.

On Alecia Nugent’s second album, Nicholson sang harmony vocals with Alison Krauss, and subsequently toured with her.

Nicholson was becoming one of Nashville’s fast-rising country stars, but he is quick to point out, “If you look up star in the dictionary, it means giant ball of gas. So I’m getting close.”

(Humor like that is one reason why Balsam Range won IBMA’s ‘Entertainers of the Year’ award in 2014).

During all Darren Nicholson’s travels and touring, he has maintained a home in Canton, and raised a son, Taylor, who he calls, “The best thing I’ve ever done.”

Over the years, Nicholson has also maintained close ties with many other talented musicians in Haywood County. His home in Canton is one of the places where Balsam Range connected.

Meeting of the Minds

Early in 2007, the current members of Balsam Range started jamming — just for fun — either at Surrett’s or Nicholson’s house. They made great music together, so they started performing — without a name.

When they got serious about forming a band, naturally local geographic names were on the table — there were mentions, of rivers, creeks, trees, mountains, Haywood (as in the county) and I-40 — everyone spends a lot of time on I-40.

Nothing seemed to grab the group, so almost in desperation, one night they pulled out a map. There it was, right in front of them — The Great Balsam Range.

In all modesty, they dropped the word “Great.” In all fairness — after nearly 10 years together, six amazing albums and countless sold-out concerts — they might consider putting that word back in.

Hear Balsam Range in December

Balsam Range will host a two-day musical celebration, the Art of Music Festival, Dec. 2 - 3 at Lake Junaluska. The festivities include world-class artists and music-related workshops.

Here’s the schedule:

• Friday, Dec. 2 — Doors open 6:30 p.m. at the Stuart Auditorium

7:30 p.m. — Balsam Range

8:15 p.m. — Lonesome River Band

9:30 p.m. — Jeff Collins, David Johnson, Tony Creasman with the Atlanta Pops mini-Orchestra

10:15 p.m. — Balsam Range with the Atlanta Mini Pops-Orchestra

• Saturday, Dec. 3

Workshops begin at noon

Doors open 6 p.m. at the Stuart Auditorium

6:30 p.m. — White Water Bluegrass Co.

7:30 p.m. — Balsam Range

9 p.m. —Marty Stuart

For festival information, visit www.balsamrangeartofmusicfestival.com. General admission tickets are $25 per day/ $40 for both days; Reserved seating tickets are $35per day/$60 for both days. Visit www.itickets.com/events/360908 or call 1-800-965-9324.