On the Northern Beat Of Mountains and Music - July 2017
Balsam Range’s Mountain Voodoo
Out here in Colorado, we have heard a lot about the divisions between bluegrass “back east” and bluegrass “out west.” In a Bluegrass Now article from some years ago, Tim O’Brien was quoted talking about how Hot Rize was labeled as the “new wave” of bluegrass when they played concerts in the East, while back home in Colorado, they were described as a band playing “traditional” bluegrass music. Yet, despite the differences, both perceived and real, it is still bluegrass music that unites us. I was reminded of this fact when reading the liner notes in the CD cover for Balsam Range’s late 2016 Mountain Voodoo CD release. It actually gave me a new insight into why this bluegrass connection is so strong across continental distances: it’s the mountains! Bluegrass may have taken its name from the humble grass (which we universally associate with flat lawns) named after a variety native to Kentucky, but Kentucky also contains mountains. The Appalachian mountain range runs through Kentucky as well as North Carolina—the other eastern state most closely associated with bluegrass music—thus, “mountain music” and “hillbilly music” are other labels also applied to bluegrass. So what if Black Mountain is the highest mountain peak in Kentucky, with a summit elevation of just 4,145 feet, and North Carolina’s highest peak (Mount Mitchell) is just 6,684 feet, while Colorado has 53 peaks over 14,000 feet? This is not a bragging contest... I’m much more impressed with the ties that bind, rather than the differences. Mountain Home Music Company (label for Balsam Range) wrote: “Imagine yourself, if you can, high up on a ridge in the mountains of North Carolina at midnight under a full moon, looking through the smoky night time haze at the surrounding ridges all covered in Balsam Firs. It’s a scene of life engulfed in strong but muted tones, crisp air, burbling springs, and the power of uncertain mystery.” Change “burbling springs” to “rushing streams” and this could easily be describing a visit to the Front Range in Colorado (and, yes, there are undoubtedly some burbling springs here, too). That liner note writing caused me to realize—like getting smacked upside the head with a 2x4—that bluegrass “just goes with” mountains. And that commonality results in a strong bluegrass connection between the Appalachians and the Rockies, between Colorado and “back east.” There is a track on this CD titled “I Hear the Mountains.” It’s a soft-spoken (er... sung) 3/4 time, wistful-feeling expression of loss as the singer leaves “the place that gave me my start” but “a part of me, still walks the high ridges, so far away but so near to my heart.” Then the bridge uses a musical melody change to emphasize: “Now my lessons I’ve learned, and I long to return...” Wow, that’s extremely powerful for me personally since I told people in Missouri for years that I “missed the mountains” of Colorado until I finally got tired of telling people that, and decided to move back “home” to Colorado (where I grew up). Of course, it’s much more complicated than that (who could have known?), but this song captures a universal human truth that I have shared in (in my own way). The mountains are a powerful natural presence (they dwarf even the largest constructs of mankind), and that imposing natural presence impacts us in powerfully emotional ways. The chorus is evocative: “ooh hoo, I hear the mountains, I hear the mountains, where ever I roam; ooh hoo, off in the distance, I hear the mountains, calling me home.” The second verse draws on memories of the mountain experience: “there is a voice, up in the tall timber, I still recall, the sweet melody; a joyful noise, so warm and familiar, so brilliant and bright, and it’s calling to me.” Once again, the bridge (shifting chord structure for emphasis) intones: “saying come on home, son... your ramblin’ is done...” Followed by another chorus, which, in turn, is followed by a change of key (symbolizing a change of heart that translates wistful thinking into action?), and the final chorus, followed by repeated instrumental transitions to the four chord, echoing to the end. It’s a hauntingly tender song, with spartan instrumentation but full-bodied 4-part harmonies tugging on your heartstrings, making you wish the singer would just drop everything and head on home... to his mountains. Balsam Range is: Buddy Melton (fiddle, lead and tenor vocals), Darren Nicholson (mandolin, octave mandolin, lead vocals, baritone and low tenor vocals), Dr. Marc Pruett (banjo), Tim Surrett (bass, Dobro, baritone and lead vocals) and Caleb Smith (guitar, lead and baritone vocals). They are all acoustic musicians and singers from western North Carolina who thoughtfully and respectfully adopted the name of a majestic range of mountains that surround part of their home county of Haywood where the Great Smoky Mountains meet the Blue Ridge: the Balsam Range. Just as local band Front Range did using our local mountain range name. Balsam Range has been one of bluegrass’s most award-winning bands in recent years. They have garnered ten IBMA Awards on the basis of six critically acclaimed albums: “On their newest release, Mountain Voodoo, the quintet cleverly captures traditional yet contemporary sounds. There are fiery instrumental parts alternating with deep heavy ballads, overlaid by the vocal harmonies the group has become known for. Debuting at number four, Mountain Voodoo remained on the Billboard chart for nineteen weeks.” I highly recommend that you add this album to your collection. Even though I only reviewed the one song, the entire album is waiting for your ears to enjoy it! And it highlights the bluegrass music connection that binds us together. If you love the mountains (and who doesn’t?) you’ll love this music!