Artist: Balsam Range
Album: Mountain Voodoo
Label: Mountain Home Music Company
Release Date: 11/11/2016
Many of you may know that this writer does not typically review bluegrass albums. Every so often, though, one piques my interest. After all, I have always enjoyed the Seldom Scene, and very much enjoyed the SteelDrivers, especially when Chris Stapleton was in the band. Strong vocal harmonies, in almost any format, are usually compelling. Those reasons- and perhaps the fact that I plan to visit the Asheville, NC area in a couple of weeks- made me take notice of Balsam Range. They have some of the best vocal harmonies I can recall in quite some time. Balsam Range has built their reputation on this, and rightly so. Formed in 2007, the band has already earned ten international Bluegrass Music Association Awards across five albums. This is their sixth.
The acoustic quintet features four-part harmonies on most tunes, while the prevailing instruments are fiddle, mandolin, banjo, upright bass and guitar. 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). Melton and Smith share most of the lead and/or chorus vocals while Nicholson takes two leads. As you can see from the above, many of the tunes feature tenor, baritone and bass parts in the harmonies. All are original members and hail from North Carolina. They take their name from a majestic range of mountains that surrounds part of their home county of Haywood, NC where the Smokies meet the Blue Ridge.
The thirteen tracks are rather evenly split between up-tempo bluegrass and ballads with themes of journey, home, sense of place and longing. Balsam Range can lay down that stomping bluegrass as well as any band, but the ballads clearly set them apart. They also add just the right touch of contemporary to their sound, separating them from so many who play that old-timey sound. The spirit and ambiance of the mountains, as seen in CD cover art with the smoky haze set against the fir trees, not only imbues their sound but seems to create a kind of magical intrigue when you listen to “I Hear the Mountains” and some of the others.
Besides that one, these are the must-listen tracks: the rock-like “Voodoo Doll” is a fun twist on the age-old tale of broken hearted love loss and the attempt of passing one’s heartache off on mystical curses rather than accepting reality. “Eldorado Blue” is a story of finding oneself and recognizing contentment, “Lines in the Sand” is a set of relationship challenges and the staggering, gospel-infused “Wish You Were Here,” the only lead vocal for Tim Surrett, is simply stunning.
Elements of jazz, country, gospel, swing and old-time music are all infused into this unique band. Bluegrass aficionado or not, you absolutely need to hear Balsam Range.