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 & baritone vocals). The five original members are all acoustic musicians and singers from western North Carolina. They thoughtfully and respectfully adopted the name of a majestic range of mountains that surround part of their home county of Haywood, NC where the Great Smoky Mountains meet the Blue Ridge, the Balsam Range.
Balsam Range is taking the music world by storm, with numerous chart topping hits, successful album sales and drawing large numbers of fans to their performances and even selling out venue after venue in the States and abroad. GraciousRoots sat down with Buddy Melton to find out where the band’s Voodoo comes from.
GraciousRoots (GR) - I’ve heard bits and pieces, and would love to know how the band formed.
Buddy Melton (Buddy) - We All lived in or are from Haywood County and had been doing a lot of different things. Some moved away and Dan lived in Tenn. and had just moved back around 2006 to be closer to his family and start his new family. Dan grew up in Canton, NC and had been traveling with Alecia Nugent and found himself back home, off the road. Of course Mark Pruett has done a lot of different things, having traveled with Ricky Skaggs and grew up in Canton. I was doing different things and Caleb Smith was playing with a group out of Georgia at the time, but we got together to jam one night. I did a solo project in 2006 and Darin Nicholson had done a project about the same time and some of the guys had played on his project. We knew each other, but had never played together as a band. So that kind of spurred some jam sessions by just getting together to play for the fun of it.
At the time, Mark and I were playing together with the Whitewater Bluegrass Company and doing more local band stuff. I remember driving down the road and Mark and I were talking. Mark said “I feel like I’ve got one more good push in me to do something.” So we all got together jamming and the chemistry was kind of just there. Some things, combinations immediately started to fit right. We had a band shaping up with four singers with a lot of versatility and cool stylistic things that came together, so the next thing you know wehad a show or two to do and didn’t even have a band name. I think we had a contract on the table before the band name came together.
Ironically, everybody found themselves back home, off the road at the same time. So many times bands are not organically put together, rather the partnerships are forced. It just sort of fell into place as opposed as trying to make it happen.
The difficult part of a band is that we have lots of different dynamics working at the same time: Some with young families, etc. and getting together at the same time, wanting the same thing, needing the same thing, is a difficult thing. which is why most bands typically don’t make it past two or three years without having multiple personnel changes on top of that. Our longevity is rather unique in the music industry, but we’re going on ten years now with the same five guys.
GR - The variance in song choices on each album combined with the variety of individual talent is phenomenal: Take the song Eldorado off of Mountain Voodoo. Somewhere the Eagles are saying “We should have written and recorded that”.
Buddy - [laughing] Well, Individually we do love all kinds of music. Of course we all love bluegrass and traditional bluegrass, but for me as an example, I like Rock, Jazz, Country , all different styles - I just love good music. Good music in all genres. (Note: Buddy can back that premise up as music lovers pushed the band’s newest track from 'Mountain Voodoo' to the top of the charts, "Eldorado Blue" number one on Bluegrass Today.) All of the band members are into that! You’ll also notice lots of gospel influences,Tim Surrett is in the Southern Gospel Hall of Fame.
GR - Tell me about Chain Gang Blues . Specifically Mark, because listening to that song you would have to imagine his banjo must be on fire!
Buddy - Chain Gang Blues was an opportunity to really showcase what Mark Pruett is capable of and you know we hold him back a lot, I mean some songs aren’t necessarily banjo focused songs. On Chain Gang Blues you hear… he is one of the greats and he can play faster than anybody on planet Earth. That particular song was right down the middle of the plate, a fast ball with Mark throwing the heat. We said, okay Mark, play it as fast as you want to play it and we’ll try to hang on.
GR - Voodoo Doll is a top shelf example of fantastic play from each individual member. Bluegrass long before Jazz, allowed each member to experiment solo within a song, showcasing their mastery of the instrument and their prowess at developing new sounds while being backed up by fellow band members.
Buddy - Those kind of songs are open, you can experiment and do what you want to. That’s the beauty of the songs we choose because it’s not predetermined before you record the song. And I think that what help us is the ability to try new songs, to develop them and the variety is unique somewhat. On a CD or on a set, we like to bring variety: Different singing styles, rhythms. I don’t like to record a CD that encourages listeners to skip through to find that one song they like. I like to create a CD that people can listen to from start to finish.
GR - Having grown up in WNC, I was blessed to experience fantastic musical talents that the rest of the world often doesn’t have the opportunity to hear.
Buddy - We’re proud to be from Haywood County and a lot of people don’t realize WNC is full of talented people. Some of the most talented musicians in our region will never be known nationally. Sometimes its opportunity, a lot of factors but a lot of people just go out and play. They have regular jobs and work in the mill or some other job, but they are phenomenal players and singers that the larger world will never know. We try and take a little bit of all of that with us on the road and try to represent what WNC has. We are by no means the top of what the region has to offer. I’m proud of the fact that when we travel all over there are a lot of influences from WNC. For example: The Steep Canyon Rangers are doing well, Brian Sutton is obviously a prodigy from WNC and has done a lot of great things for music and the list goes on and on.
When people visit Asheville and other areas and they go to events like Shindig On The Green, that’s when they have the opportunity to walk around and hear the local people play. They realize how rich in heritage we are and how much talent we still have in the area.
GR - CD cover art and the name Mountain Voodoo, how did Balsam Range come up with the art and title?
Buddy - There are multiple reasons I pushed for the title Mountain Voodoo: It’s a fun title, it makes you think, makes you inquire “what is this about?”, but ultimately it’s also a reminder to us… WNC the Appalachian mountains, there’s a lot of magic that occurs from there. The music is magical, the people are magical. When we go somewhere we try and take our mountain voodoo - the talent rich heritage of this area with us to represent. It was also a cool artistic spin on magical music from WNC and the Appalachian mountains that have influenced us.
GR - Do you guys have anything you’re working on?
Buddy - Yes, a couple of things. We’ve had some of our songs scored. We’ve played with a couple of orchestras. A guy in L.A. has put music to the poetry of James Joyce and we have been recording to be part of that project. It’s really fun to take our music and be able to collaborate with what most people perceive as a different genre of music, but when you put it together and as I say great music is great music. When you put it all together it works - when we were able to put our music with an orchestra it’s an incredibly big sound and you realize it blends together to be a bigger sound. You know years ago orchestras were a big part of music - Pop music. It kind of stayed there but it’s as valid as ever because it’s been really fun to get together and do projects together.
GR - A willingness to push perceived boundaries seems to be a Hallmark?
Buddy - Our Art of Music Festival in Lake Junaluska, NC we put together this past autumn, it’s a celebration of music. It’s not just a bluegrass festival, although that’s a big part of it. We do fiddle workshops, banjo workshops, et cetera. At the same time we had the Atlanta Pop Orchestra last year and will be back next year. We’ve had other genres of music because it’s a celebration of music. Fortunately it was really well received last year, it was a fun time and we expect it to grow next year. I say all of this to show you that our belief is that the “art of music” is bigger than one genre. It all is capable of being tied together and it gives us the opportunity to take our music, the heritage music we love from WNC and take it to places and people that have previously not been exposed to it. Time and time again, we go places where bluegrass is not part of the musical vocabulary for a particular audience. They come up to us and say “ you know I never thought I liked bluegrass music. I love what y’all are doing it’s not what I expected.” Humans often have a preconceived notion of what they think something they are unfamiliar with is before they give it a chance - rock for example. Maybe you go to a rock concert and it really touches you. The fact is it gives us a wonderful opportunity to have people hear our music where it likely may not be heard otherwise.
GR - Here’s a question from one of our readers: “The Song Wish You Were Here: Do some songs pull at the heart strings of the band members?”
Buddy - It’s a powerful song. Ken sang that with the Kingsmen gospel music and had a number one hit with it. A great song to evoke emotion, it may be sad, cry your eyes out, it may make you happy, but any great song evokes some type of emotion. We have been lucky at Balsam Range to have music that has touched peoples lives. Trains I Missed for example is not necessarily a gospel song, but evokes powerful feelings. You’d be surprised how many people come up to us and say I’ve been gong through a rough time and that song, or another of our songs is the one that got them through their tough time. I ran into a girl the other day that had a tattoo of The Trains I Missed (3rd album) tattooed on her arm. It was that much of a profound statement in her life and how much it meant to her. Back to the song Wish You Were Here, a lady came up to us a few weeks ago at a festival and told us a really deep, spiritual story of how that song impacted her life in a profound way. It kind of changes your outlook of what you’re doing when some of these songs have such an impact on peoples lives. It’s at that point you realize that what you’re doing, it’s more than just playing for the fun of it.
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. The first single, “Blue Collar Dreams” spent 3 consecutive months at the number one spot on the Bluegrass Today Charts.