Music that fitsFor this fan, bluegrass just feels right
I’m a bluegrass groupie. That would come as a big surprise to my long-ago music professors at Brevard College who saw to it that I was on good terms with the exquisite music of the masters. I still play the three B’s — Bach, Brahms and Beethoven — every week at church. But when it’s time to drive home to Hazelwood, it’s bluegrass for me on the CD player.
I’m writing this on Sunday afternoon, and today it was the Darren Nicholson Band. I didn’t grow up knowing much about our Appalachian musical roots nor of the raw talent hidden in these hills. Instead, I listened to Mother’s piano arrangements of big-band hits of the '40s and '50s. She had beautiful hands and I loved watching her play. If she heard it, she could play it. Me, I have to have the music in front of me — a requirement I consider a bit tacky. Daddy loved to hear Mother play, but sometimes he’d sneak and spin old-time pure country on the big record player in their bedroom.
It was Arthur Smith who brought me to banjos and bluegrass. Smith, a Charlotte music mogul who would go on to win a lawsuit against the makers of the film “Deliverance” for stealing his stuff, had once allowed a young Mary Poteat Fisher to play a tune on his radio show. So, Mother always set our T.V. dial to his 7 a.m. show to shake the sleep off a houseful of females. Since Daddy was already at the plant, we got to laugh with Smith brothers Arthur and Ralph as we prepared for the day. When I heard that banjo, I was hooked. During the heyday of Bill Stanley’s Barbeque in Asheville, I was too busy to take in the musical magic that Marc Pruett and Steve Sutton and others were making there. My first big crush was Whitewater Bluegrass Company. Marc was playing then with “Uncle Ted“ and the rest, and they were showmen. The group still is.
Whitewater Bluegrass, now in its 30th year, has been joined by IBMA winner and Grammy-nominated banjo player Steve Sutton from Haywood County, and he alone is worth the price of a ticket. About six years ago, Grammy-award winner Marc Pruett and an extraordinarily talented group of musicians formed Balsam Range. In 2010, they were nominated for the International Bluegrass Music Association’s “Emerging Group” award. As Marc and I walked up the sidewalk from Nashville’s Historic Ryman Auditorium after that show, Marc said: “We were in pretty high cotton tonight.” Well, I thought the other groups were in high cotton, to be in the same category as Haywood County’s own Balsam Range. They didn’t win in 2010, but their hit “Trains I Missed” won the IBMA song of the year award in 2011.
Last month, Bluegrass First Class had its 17th annual festival at the Crowne Plaza Resort in Asheville and Balsam Range brought the house down, as usual. It had been a long day for all of them — Marc, Tim Surrett, Darren Nicholson, Caleb Smith and Buddy Melton. As fans crowded around their sales table after their performance, I tried to get Tim Surrett’s attention to snap his picture. His 3-½ year old son tugged on Tim’s sport coat: “Daddy, that girl needs you.” I fell in love with Braden Surrett right then. Darren, Caleb, Marc and daughter Callie, and Buddy posed for me and I packed up my gear. I told Buddy I’d see him soon.
“I’m heading for Haywood County,” I said.
Buddy replied that he’d be right behind me. Within a month, the bluegrass world would be shaken with the news that Buddy Melton had been seriously injured in a farm accident. I heard it on WLOS. At first, the clip the television station showed was of BR mandolin player Darren Nicholson. But they were talking about Buddy. Phones rang, Internet messages flew, prayers went up. Darren quickly began updating us on Facebook. The tight-knit bluegrass community circled the wagons to be there for Buddy and his family.
Shortly before his 10-hour surgery, Buddy himself posted powerful words. A man of deep faith, his message made me cry. Buddy is recovering. The road is rocky, the path painful. But he cut orders on Balsam Range that they’re supposed to be making music. They’ve started on their next CD, laying down their tracks so that it’ll be ready for Buddy’s magic when he’s fiddling and singing again. Buddy’s high tenor is uniquely his. But his current stand-in, Eddie Rose, brings his own acclaimed talent to the group to fill in ably until Buddy is up and at ‘em.
Tickets are now on sale for the final show in Balsam Range's Winter Concert Series on April 7 at the Colonial Theatre in Canton, with special guest David Johnson. Balsam Range will also be stage band for the annual Ramp Convention at the American Legion in May, and on April 21 they’ll share the stage in Maggie Valley with the Darren Nicholson Band, Whitewater Bluegrass and Mark and Aimee Bumgarner for the first-ever PlottFest, to benefit Head Start of Haywood County. More information about these shows and more can be found at www.balsamrange.com.
Do yourself a favor. Try on some bluegrass and see if it fits. I think it’ll make you feel good and I can guarantee you'll meet some mighty nice folks.