Darren Nicholson toured for three years with Nashville singer Alecia Nugent. With her, he played the Grand Ole Opry several times a month. And, he says, “I got to play the Opry with George Jones one time, which was cool for me because I’m a big George Jones fan.” But a couple of the guys in Nicholson’s current band — WNC-based bluegrass outfit Balsam Range — have never played that country music landmark. That’ll change by press time; the band was slated to perform on that stage in early March.
“It’s always special to play the Grand Ole Opry,” says Nicholson. “That’s the Super Bowl for hillbillies.”
That March show sees Balsam Range (Caleb Smith on vocals and guitar; Marc Pruett on banjo; Buddy Melton on vocals and fiddle; Tim Surrett on vocals, bass and resonator guitar; and Nicholson on vocals and mandolin) performing with Zac Brown Band bassist John Driskell Hopkins in support of their collective, collaborative album, Daylight.
Though Nicholson says he’s been a fan of ZBB for years, it was actually Hopkins who reached out to Balsam Range. “He heard our song ‘Blue Mountain’ on satellite radio, and apparently loved the song,” says Nicholson. “One day we got an email from Southern Ground,” which is Brown’s label. So the WNC musicians met with Hopkins in Canton where they rehearsed before launching into festivals together.
Hopkins wanted to do a bluegrass record (“Something awakened in him that he’d missed for a long time,” says Nicholson), so Balsam Range signed on for that project. (In a way, it’s not surprising. Bluegrass is having its day, and WNC-based bluegrass, especially.) The finished product, 13-track Daylight, has been racking up rave reviews. It landed Balsam Range and Hopkins on the Southern Ground Tour with artists like John Mayer and The Allman Brothers. And the record “was reviewed in New York Times and different places where bluegrass bands don’t end up a lot of time,” says Nicholson.
In fact Nicholson (an award-winning country, bluegrass and Americana musician in his own right), has been making a career out of taking bluegrass to places it doesn’t usually go (he lists Mexico, the Bahamas, Jamaica, Haiti and Australia on his bio). And, on the heels of last summer’s release (Papertown, the band’s fourth full-length), Balsam Range decided to dedicate this year to traveling more.
That decision seems like a strange one considering the album’s history — the band started it while Melton was in the hospital, in hopes that he’d recuperate in time to tour. Their prayers paid off; Melton is completely recovered and the record has produced four No. 1 singles (on Bluegrass Today, Sirius XM radio and the bluegrass gospel chart) and held the top spot on the Bluegrass Unlimited chart for two months and counting. (In 2011, Balsam Range’s song, “The Trains I Missed,” won IBMA song of the year.)
But the band isn’t making strides just in hopes of garnering accolades. More than anything, Balsam Range is making music for its growing fan base. So much so that online community Balsam Nation (membership is $47) not only gets insider information, but exclusive releases. “Folks sing up and get five albums’ worth of new music,” says Nicholson. That includes a live album recorded this January at The Altamont Theatre.
“It’s like playing in your living room,” Nicholson says of that performance space. “It had a good vibe for a live recording.”
But it’s clear in talking to Nicholson that he’s passionate playing live and introducing new listeners to the Balsam range sound. “Bluegrass is one of those genres that can morph,” he says. “You know, Bill Monroe is in The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. A lot of people in a lot of different genres have bluegrass roots.”
Not all of those people can play WNC bluegrass, though. Nicholson says that’s a real thing. “There’s different pockets around the country that have a style,” he says. “We all grew up playing this kind of music in the mountains; we definitely have that mountain sound.”
— Alli Marshall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
who: Balsam Range with Missy Raines & the New Hip
where: The Grey Eagle
when: Thursday, March 21 (8 p.m., $10 advance/$12 day of show. http://thegreyeagle.com)