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Wednesday, 25 June 2014 13:45

All for one, one for all: Behind the curtain of Balsam Range

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coverMarc Pruett has won a Grammy and played the Grand Ole Opry stage, but his biggest concern on this day is sinkholes.

“Where is it? Canton?,” he asked a coworker. 

Director of erosion control for Haywood County, Pruett sits at his desk, which is covered in paper, maps and books. After a heavy midday rain, two sinkholes have emerged in downtown Canton. Pruett puts a plan into motion, workers head for the door. 

“Sinkholes, mud, sediment and landslides,” he lists off his specialties. “This position keeps me grounded, no pun intended. I enjoy what I do for Haywood County. I enjoy environmental protection, and I think I’m on the frontlines of protecting the resources our community offers.”

This is a far cry from Pruett’s other occupation — banjoist for nationally acclaimed bluegrass group Balsam Range. On the heels of winning the International Bluegrass Music Association award for Album of the Year for their record “Papertown” last year (the biggest honor in the industry), the quintet just released the follow-up, “Five.” 

“When you’re doing what I have to do at the level I have to do it, you have to be on point,” Pruett said. “If I get to the stage, dressed well, do my performance well, banjo in tune, good songs, and if all the pieces fit together correctly, that’s where I get the satisfaction. It’s not just fun for me, but it must be fun for the crowd, where we leave them with a warm, Appalachian smile.”

Alongside Pruett in Balsam Range are Buddy Melton (fiddle/vocals), Darren Nicholson (mandolin/vocals), Tim Surrett (bass/dobro/vocals) and Caleb Smith (guitar/vocals). Since their inception in 2007, the group has rapidly risen into the stratosphere of 21st century bluegrass. Amid their numerous number-one singles, accolades and Grand Ole Opry appearances, they also won the 2011 IBMA Song of the Year award for “Trains I Missed.” 

And though Balsam Range continues to flourish and push further out into the world, the boys always have one foot firmly planted in Western North Carolina, firmly in the ancient mountains of their forefathers, where nothing replaces hard work and nobody is too good for their hometown. It’s those traits deeply instilled in the band being radiated from the stage and making a connection with people on the other side of the microphone.

“Music is a very powerful thing, it speaks to people, it’s the universal language, and there’s a responsibility with that when you get to the level we’re at,” Melton said. “People connect to your music and they tell you their life story, and it brings awareness to what we’re doing. We’re impacting people’s lives and they’re impacting ours — that’s a pretty special thing.”

 

Blueberries and ‘Daddy’ Lloyd

From an early age, Marc Pruett has had a love of all things geological and scientific.

“My college degree is in geology and biology — I have followed science all of my life,” the 62-year-old said. “My dad was an old rock hound. I never saw him at a ball game, but he sure did drag us around to emerald, ruby and sapphire mines, and because of that, I developed an appreciation for earth history and geomorphic processes.”

And as that interest in rocks grew, so did Pruett’s other love — music. Coming from a family of pickers and singers, he was influenced early on by the bass guitar ringing out of his father’s fingers and the soulful harmonies echoing from his mother’s voice.

“There was always a family appreciation for music, the mountains, and what they both stood for,” Pruett said. 

Pruett fondly remembers running around the deep mountains of Haywood County as a child. Sitting shotgun in his grandfather “Daddy” Lloyd Pruett’s Jeep, they’d roam the old logging roads, hike the trails, pick the blueberries, fish the streams, all in an effort to soak in the essence of the beauty surrounding them.

“This was before the commoditization of land, where you go onto large tracts of land and squirrel hunt or fish, where it was an honor system as long as you didn’t abuse it,” he said. “I think all of those memories and images give way to a beautiful sense of place. Grandpa and dad taught us how to appreciate the beauty of the land here and to protect it, and that’s something that really has stuck with me my whole life.”

Entering adulthood, Pruett continued to pursue his two passions. He eventually found work for Haywood County as an erosion control officer. And all the while, he would spend his weekends playing music around the South with innumerable acts or within his own group, beloved regional act The Marc Pruett Band. 

His talent on the banjo was obvious, and with hard work and patience, he soon found himself at the door of numerous opportunities, the biggest of which being his time playing with bluegrass legend Ricky Skaggs — a position that led to the 1999 Grammy Award for Best Bluegrass Album for “Bluegrass Rules!”

That balancing act of working a full-time job and playing music is something Pruett has kept going for decades. With two kids currently in college, he looks at all of his work as vital to his family.

“The band definitely gives a little bit deeper level of security for my family,” he said. “I’ve always had to work two jobs. With my kids in college it can be a challenge, and with this economy the way it is, I’m thankful to have work because the desire to work is a prayer that needs to be answered, and it has been in my case.”

These days, beyond his 40-hour-a-week county gig, he plays upwards of 150 shows a year with Balsam Range — a show number that becomes more demanding and flexible with each new bar of success achieved by the band.

“If you could see it from my side, I’d love to have a cot to rest on right now, and if you look at my hand, you can see my Starbucks cup of coffee,” he chuckled. “My job and my music keep my mind occupied in positive ways that keeps me thinking, keeps me active in many ways — I need to keep moving my hands, moving my fingers.”

 

Building The Sound

Across the ridge from Pruett’s office, down a quiet back road outside of Canton and up a winding dirt driveway, Caleb Smith is busy in his basement workshop building custom high-end guitars for an array of clients.

“When I’m in here, in my workshop making guitars, this is all I do, all I think about and focus on,” he said. “The band, my family, my house, my garden, I don’t think about it — this is my release when I’m in here.”

As of last count, Smith had 40 guitar orders waiting in the wings. For 2014, he expects to complete over a dozen. He spends countless hours constructing the wood bodies. It’s a longtime passion of his that he’s been able to mold into a bountiful career.

“It can get crazy,” he said. “You’re talking to clients all week, finishing up all kinds of details, meeting deadlines, having to push deadlines back.”

With three kids, Smith is grateful to be able to make a living being his own boss. With Balsam Range out on the road every weekend, he cherishes the time during the week he can put off working on a guitar and enjoy his family. But, that also doesn’t mean there aren’t sacrifices made in the name of music.

“My daughter is 14 years old and is going to high school this year. I look back on the last five years or so and wonder if I should have done something different, if I should have been home more and not out on the road,” he said. “But, my wife and kids understand that this is what I do to make a living.”

Now 36, Smith has been a musician for the majority of his life. Raised in Waynesville, he was always surrounded by music. His immediate family and relatives all played, with pickin’ sessions occurring at all family gatherings. 

Picking up the banjo at age 7, he already had interest in the music of his homeland. But, it was when he watched a how-to video by legendary guitarist Tony Rice that everything changed — guitar was now his instrument of choice. Smith’s progression was seamless with his father, an accomplished guitar player in his own right, showing him chord progressions and finger positions. 

Smith bounced around numerous groups throughout his youth. Before Balsam Range, he was founding member of the group Harvest, which led to him winning Male Vocalist of the Year and Guitar Player of the Year for the Power Grass music awards.

Following high school, he found work in a nearby plant making laminate countertop items, but the swing shifts and tiring labor took its toll. He left the plant and began building homes. But, the economy and housing market eventually tanked and he needed new sources of income, which resulted in his newfound love at the time of guitar building. It was also around that period, 2007, that he starting jamming out with a handful of local musicians, a group of folks who’d soon call themselves Balsam Range.

“It’s amazing to look at our band and see that it’s still the same five guys it has been since day one. It makes people believe in you and in what you’re doing,” he said. “Last year, when we’re nominated at the IBMA’s for Album of the Year, Entertainer of the Year and Song of the Year it was surreal to be nominated and surrounded by your heroes. It’s crazy to think how far we’ve come. I mean, when we first played a show together, we didn’t even have a name.”

 

Capturing The Magic

Heading into the Crossroads Studios in Arden this past winter, Balsam Range aimed to top the quality and precision of “Papertown.” While some groups would enter the recording studio apprehensive about how to follow-up such a successful album, Balsam Range looked at it as just another day on the job in their musical careers, where the goal is to better yourselves as musicians and not worry about critics, label expectations and their own voices in their heads.

“[With winning Album of the Year] nothing really changed, though we did sit with this record a little longer than in the past,” said bassist/dobroist Tim Surrett. “We’ve always done just the best we can and do the best songs possible. We’ve had some high profile reviews on it already, and so far it has been very positive. Now we just have to sit back and see what happens.”

The album, “Five,” is the group’s fifth record in almost eight years together. Five albums completed, five members in the band or five strings on a banjo, however you interpret it, the record name seems to fit wherever its placed. Whatever the case, the 13-song album (with original selections and others from songwriters like Milan Miller, Mark Bumgarner and Mark Winchester) is filled with bluegrass, gospel and folk melodies. There’s barn-burning pickin’ and four-part vocal harmonies (as well as an accappella number), poignant hard-working lyrics and tear-jerking ballads. It’s the sights and sounds of Southern Appalachia, its history and its people — it’s the epitome of Balsam Range.

“Each one of these guys is a top-tier vocalist and musician. They have diverse musical tastes and backgrounds and aren’t afraid to step out of the box a bit,” said Scott Barnett, recording engineer at Crossroads. “I believe it’s their ability to tastefully and intuitively blend gospel, jazz, country and other genres with traditional bluegrass that makes them such a powerful group.”

Between their work ethic, camaraderie and passion for music and live performance, Barnett feels the sky is the limit for Balsam Range and their mainstream appeal.

“As far as I can see it, the future is wide open for Balsam Range. I’m sure they will keep putting out great records and taking their unique musical vision to the public with high-energy live shows,” he said. “All the guys are very unique and gifted artists as individuals, but having worked with them both live and in the studio I can tell you that there is a special energy and chemistry that happens when they all get together. Every time the guys from Balsam Range step in front of the microphones, they are all true professionals in every sense of the word.”

 

Lightning Strikes Twice

Entering Canelos Mexican Family Restaurant in Canton, mandolinst Darren Nicholson and his 13-year-old son Taylor wander over to the elaborate salsa buffet, scoop up a few small sample cups and head for a table.

“He’s the greatest thing that ever happened to me,” Nicholson said, hugging his son. “I love him to death.”

Growing up, Nicholson attended Enka High School in a community straddling the Haywood and Buncombe County line. Playing music from a very early age, he knew even then that he wanted to make a career of it. By his freshman year of high school, he was playing shows around the area every weekend. That rigorous lifestyle made him want to take a break from performing until he was out of high school, in an effort to enjoy his youth, perhaps catch a football game or just hangout with his friends.

The youngest member of Balsam Range, Nicholson, 30, was a teenager when Taylor was born. He had to forego college aspirations and a scholarship to the University of North Carolina at Greensboro in order to work and provide for his family. 

“You have all these grandiose plans to do this and that, then you find out you’re going to be a dad right when you’re graduating from high school,” Darren said. “So, what are you going to do? I ended up having to go into banking, doing personal financing and things like that to survive.”

As weekday-working banker, Nicholson used his free time on weekends to play music and be able to make a supplemental income through live shows around Western North Carolina and beyond. The live performance bug bit him as he soon found himself touring and playing around the country with Alecia Nugent, a bluegrass star in her own right. Every weekend, Nicholson would drive from Haywood County to Nashville, either to record or jump in the van and play some shows.

At age 19, Nicholson made his first appearance on the Grand Ole Opry stage. From then on, his career expanded, with numerous IBMA awards, a Grammy nomination and many more live performances at the Opry. One might say he lived a full life and career before the idea of Balsam Range even entered his head — a notion that can be applied to the other members of the band.

“When Balsam Range started, I figured I’d already done the most I could do in my career,” he said. “When we started Balsam Range, I thought we were an OK band that could book some local gigs, and then it kept progressing. No one is more surprised by our success than we are.”

When he’s not working with Balsam Range, Nicholson also fronts a solo group that bears his name. Before he arrived at the restaurant, he found out the song “Like My Dog,” from his new solo record “Things Left Undone,” hit number one on the Sirius XM Radio’s “Bluegrass Junction” channel. 

“You just got to keep your fingers crossed that people like what you’re doing, and hopefully they’ll continue to like it,” he smiled.

And with the accolades, Nicholson said that the toughest part of the band growing is learning the word “No.” In the beginning, Balsam Range was playing around Western North Carolina and they were able to play any show that was asked of them. Now, with the national recognition, the phone is ringing off the hook for them to make appearances, play benefits and simply be everywhere at once.

“It rubs a lot of people the wrong way when we have to decline a show,” he said. “You want to play all of the shows because you care about everybody, but if we played all the shows we are asked to play, we’d never have any time for our families.”

Though at its heart, Balsam Range will always be five friends who love playing music together, the band has become a business, with money and decisions being made.

“We’re trying to work and provide for our families,” Nicholson said. “We all have our obstacles and issues we work through. We have business meetings, figure out goals and find out ways to achieve them. It’s like a marriage, where there are things you need to sit down, talk about and work out.”

When asked if Balsam Range is hitting a career ceiling, whether or not the group would let the band seep more into their free time and family obligations, Nicholson said family and friends will always come first, but that doesn’t mean they would put a cap on their success.

“We all want to see how far we can go with this,” he said. “You don’t want to suffocate it, but you’ve got to learn and say ‘no,’ to pick and choose what’s best for our families. As long as Balsam Range is moving forward and in a positive direction, we’ll keep going.”

 

Farmer fiddler

Pulling into the parking lot of a Tractor Supply Company in Clyde, fiddler Buddy Melton pops the tailgate of his truck down and takes a seat. An engineer for the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources Public Water Supply Section (the department covers 19 counties), Melton just finished another full day of work. 

He sits on the tailgate and takes a break for a moment. Soon, he’ll get ready to travel to Highlands for a Balsam Range show that evening — show two of five that weekend.

“It’s exciting. It’s hard to believe looking back at where we started and to see it materialize in the way it has,” he said. “‘Papertown’ was a benchmark as to where we’re at. We’re really proud of this new album and what the future holds.”

The de facto leader of Balsam Range, Melton started playing fiddle in college. He performed with bluegrass/gospel group Jubal Foster, an act that had some success, but not enough in the tank to keep it going. Melton also performed with bluegrass legends David Holt and Doc Watson before he found himself jamming in Nicholson’s kitchen. With the rapid success of Balsam Range, Melton can only pinch himself to see if it’s real.

“I remember going to the IBMA awards prior to playing music and just as a fan, and watching folks I admire up onstage winning awards,” he said. “You never dream you’d be up there one day going through the same process.”

But, the awards and accolades received by Balsam Range almost never happened, with the band at the mercy of the heavens when Melton was severely injured in a farming accident in early 2012. Owner of a 300-acre farm in Crabtree, Melton was kicked in the face while loading cattle. He suffered brain trauma, with surgeons wondering if he’d survive, let alone be the same again after recovery.

“The accident changed me drastically. I went through life without any major glitches, never been in a hospital. You think you’re somewhat invincible, you see people suffer and you feel for them, but when you personally go through something like that it’s a reality check,” he said. “You realize life is precious, life is short, and you need to take advantage of every opportunity that comes you way.”

Though Melton admits there are certain oddities that remain from his accident, for the most part he’s made a positive recovery. He was able to take the stage to perform at the album release for “Papertown” only a handful of months after he was one foot in the grave.

“You’ve just got to put it all behind you, take what you have and move forward,” he said. “The accident definitely changed my outlook on life and Balsam Range. It doesn’t take long to realize this is a special thing the five of us have — I’m grateful for it all.”

That “special thing the five of us have” is the key to Balsam Range. Since their inception almost eight years ago, it’s been the same exact five members — a rarity in bluegrass, which is a genre of revolving-door bands and musicians.

“Most bluegrass bands have the shelf life of a banana,” Melton said. “For us to stay together this long is truly unique. I look at a band like Blue Highway, with 11 albums and 20 years together, as an inspiration for us. We still work, and there’s no reason we can’t reach the number they have.”

Each time Balsam Range hits the stage Melton is humbled by the supportive and encouraging audiences. He’s also thankful for the mere fact that he knows exactly what the other four members will give — passion, professionalism and a peace of mind that their band is a fruitful endeavor.

“We are five guys with similar needs and wants, similar families and goals. We have talent and are focused. We communicate openly and honestly, with each trying to keep it successful, with each able to put on different hats at different times,” he said. “We will play the Grand Ole Opry on a Saturday night, then get up for work on Monday morning. You have to switch those hats, be focused and know you have a limited time to get it all done and do you get it done? We do.”

 

Finding A Balance

Standing in the lobby of the Waynesville Recreation Center on a recent evening, Tim Surrett just dropped off his young son for a swimming lesson. He takes a seat in a nearby booth and gazes through the window at the pool. Between his hectic schedule with Balsam Range and his full-time working for Crossroads, his time with his son is precious.

“I’m trying to look ahead. I’m not good at that, but I’m learning,” he said. “This year I missed his sixth birthday and that is just unacceptable to me. It’s tough you know? He cries when I leave for the road and says, ‘Daddy, why don’t you quit the band?’ and I tell him, ‘If I do we’ll have to move’ and then he says not to do that.”

Surrett is no stranger to life on the road. He’s spent decades in several groups roaming America and beyond. Before Balsam Range, he was most notable in the gospel act The Kingsmen Quartet where he won multiple awards for Gospel Musician of the Year. His work with the quartet also led to a place in the Southern Gospel Hall of Fame. And throughout the years, he has shared the stage with industry legends like Vince Gill, Ralph Stanley, Tony Rice and Brad Paisley. 

“I was a full-time musician for 28 years. When I was younger, I was gone all the time, where my family didn’t expect to see me until Christmas,” the 50-year-old said. “And having a kid changes everything — it’s a whole new ballgame.”

With the success of Balsam Range taking off, doors keep opening for bigger and better opportunities. Recently, the group played the role of backup band on a solo record by John Driskell Hopkins, the bassist/cofounder of the wildly popular Zac Brown Band. Since then, there has been talk of a tour with Brown, which could mean an opening slot for Balsam Range in front of tens of thousands of new fans every night.

“Zac has talked to John about an opening slot,” Surrett said. “I don’t know if that’ll happen, but if it did, it’d be hard to turn something like that down.”

Surrett looks at Balsam Range coming about in a perfect storm, a musical era where string music and the idea of something different than mainstream modern country is being sought after by a growing legion of fans. The Avett Brothers, Mumford & Sons and The Lumineers are now top-tier headlining acts (with Old Crow Medicine Show and The Infamous Stringdusters not far behind), so who knows what could lie down the road for Balsam Range?

Thinking about the Album of the Year and Song of the Year awards, Surrett felt amazed and humbled to be honored, but also in awe of being appreciated by musicians he’s always looked up to.

“When we won Song of the Year we were at the Ryman Auditorium (Grand Ole Opry) performing and there is Ricky Skaggs sitting in the front row waving at us because he used to work for years with Marc — it’s weird, very weird, but nice.”

Surrett, like the rest of the group, has never taken his career for granted. And it’s the cornerstone of never getting too big for their britches than keeps Balsam Range on the level and aware of the fact of how lucky they are to get to do what they truly love — play music.

“You read these stories about your favorite musicians getting sick of touring and the audience screaming for them, and I think, ‘My God, how lucky are you?’,” he said. “Yes, touring is physically and mentally taxing, but when you get out there and make that connection with the crowd, there’s no substitute for it. I don’t know what that sickness is, but I have it and always had it.”

Though bluegrass is a popular genre, Surrett said Balsam Range members are by no means rock stars, but just regular guys going to work day by day and hitting the stage night after night.

“The band definitely makes other things possible, but we aren’t ‘rich’ by any stretch,” he said. “If you love this kind of music, it’s easy to think the big names are superstars, but that’s just not the case. I can walk around Walmart and nobody will recognize me.

Sliding out of the lobby booth, Surrett gets ready to pick up his son from the pool. At a nearby table, a rec center employee looks at Surrett with an inquisitive glance.

“Hey, you look familiar,” said the female employee.

“Who? Him? He’s a reporter for The Smoky Mountain News,” Surrett responded. 

“No, not him. I know he works for the paper. I’m talking about you, I know you,” she countered.

“I’m just the oldest guy with the youngest kid in the county,” Surrett chuckled.

“And the bassist for Balsam Range,” this reporter piped up.

“Yeah, Balsam Range. That’s it. You play bluegrass,” she smiled. “Balsam Range — y’all play some great music.”

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