Meet the Darren Nicholson Band

Star-studden group is hitting the music scene
By Mary Ann Enloe | Dec 10, 2012

If you're a bluegrass follower, plant the Darren Nicholson Band near the front of your parade. Nicholson, popular mandolin player and vocalist with Haywood County's white-hot, chart-topping Balsam Range, fronts his own band of stellar musicians: Steve Sutton, banjo; Kevin Sluder, acoustic bass and vocals; Griff Martin, guitar and vocals; and Jeff Smith on percussion.

"We have world-class musicians here at home," said Nicholson. "They've done amazing things, yet they're down to earth and just want to play music."

Nicholson started with mentor Steve Sutton. Waynesville's three-time Grammy nominee and four-time IBMA award winner celebrates 50 years of playing professionally next year when he turns 57, and is considered by many to be one of the best banjo players performing in the world today.

"Steve's not just a banjo player--he's a world-class entertainer," said Nicholson of a man he clearly reveres.  "He bought me my first mandolin years ago and he's responsible for getting me on the Grand Ole Opry. I just sort of looked up to him from the beginning."

Though Nicholson is barely 29 years old, he can hold his own with Sutton's lightening-fast wit and the two often finish each other's sentences.

"We can be kind of dangerous,"  Nicholson said with a laugh.

Watching Nicholson and Sutton make music together is like watching a bluegrass ballet.  The result is pure musical magic.

"The Darren Nicholson Band is going to see Steve Sutton in his complete comfort zone," said Nicholson.  "Nothing sells like the real thing."

DNB bass player and vocalist Kevin Sluder is a favorite of Nicholson's:  "He's so unassuming, I don't think he has any idea how talented he is," Nicholson said of the Buncombe County native. "He has a special light.  And he thinks funny."

Multi-faceted guitar player and vocalist Griff Martin, also of Buncombe County, is known for his exceptional parts singing.

"With Kevin and Griff, we have a trio of folks who have done a lot of singing," said Nicholson who was hired by the Grand Ole Opry as a singer.

Rounding out the quintet is Jeff Smith of Waynesville on drums.  Local folks will recognize the former Nashville resident as the owner of the City Bakery on Main Street.

Percussion in bluegrass, yes or no?

"There's nothing more acoustic than a drum," said Nicholson.  "Being able to feel that steady beat frees the rest of the band to concentrate on playing."  He pointed out that Flatt and Scruggs had drums, as did Jimmy Martin and the Jim and Jesse duo.  "For 30 years every bluegrass band had a drummer," he said.

Bluegrass music fosters friendships.  Music makers respect each other.

"When we lost our mandolin player, Darren called and said he'd be glad to fill in as much as his schedule permitted," said Ted White, founder of regional favorite Whitewater Bluegrass Company now celebrating its 30th year.  "He genuinely wanted to help us out, and we're mighty glad he did."   Nicholson's friend Sutton is a regular with WWBC.

Darren Nicholson is a passionate paradox.  A consummate performer, he's still a fan.  His exuberance and enthusiasm about music are refreshing nods to his young years.  But make no bones about it, Nicholson is an old soul. He cares about the music and the people who come out to hear it.

"We bring something fun and quirky to the stage, but we always respect the legitimacy of the music," he said.  "And from the bottom of my heart, I really appreciate the folks who support us.  We want to make music you can pat your foot to and we want people to leave loving live music a little bit more.  We want them to know they've experienced something different."

The Darren Nicholson Band will help Frog Level Brewing Company celebrate its first anniversary Friday night with a performance benefiting Toys for Tots beginning at 7 p.m. Folks are asked to bring two new unwrapped toys or a donation of $20 for the purchase of toys.

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