Like the majestic mountains for which the band derived its name, Balsam Range is standing tall and proud. After an incredible 2013, the band’s bucket list isn’t as long. The group lived one dream when it debuted on the stage of the Grand Ole Opry in March. Last year, they also hooked up with John Driskell Hopkins, bass player/singer from the hot country Zac Brown Band that propelled their music to new audiences. Then, there was the tremendous response of radio, fans, and the bluegrass music industry to their IBMA Album Of The Year, Papertown. “Nobody’s more surprised when things go this well than I am,” Tim Surrett said with a chuckle. “We’ve tried our best to make good records, and we have good friends in radio who have been super kind to us, and I think that’s been huge. From the first day our first record came out, it was all over everywhere.”
The quintet is made up of Surrett, the entertaining MC, singer, upright bassist, and occasional resonator guitarist. He has performed and recorded with a string of bluegrass luminaries such as Tony Rice, J.D. Crowe, Bobby Osborne, Larry Sparks, Ronnie Bowman, Rhonda Vincent, and country stars Vince Gill, Brad Paisley, and Keith Urban. He was a star in his own right for years in the gospel music business, including a ten-year stint with The Kingsmen. Surrett is a member of the Southern Gospel Hall of Fame and a two-time Favorite Southern Gospel Musician in the Singing News Fan Awards.
Buddy Melton’s impeccable tenor helps define the group’s distinctive sound, along with his sizzling fiddle playing. Melton’s resumé includes the gospel bluegrass group Rock Springs Reunion and the Nashville-based band, Jubal Foster. He’s recorded and shared the stage with many artists such as Sam Bush, Rhonda Vincent, Porter Wagoner, and Jon Randall, to name a few.
Vocalist Caleb Smith has been called one of the top young guns of guitar. He won the PowerGrass guitar player and male vocalist of the year award in 2006. He’s also scored as a songwriter with three tunes that made it on the Singing News chart.
Darren Nicholson provides his gifted harmony singing and mandolin playing. He was a Grammy nominee and winner of the IBMA Album Of The Year award in 2006 for the album Celebration Of Life: Musicians Against Childhood Cancer with Alecia Nugent.
Marc Pruett brings his intuitive and powerful traditional three-finger banjo picking to the band. With over forty years in music, Pruett has a wide range of experiences and accolades. As a member of Ricky Skaggs and Kentucky Thunder, he won a Grammy for Bluegrass Rules. He has played with a star-studded list of musicians in multiple genres and performed “Train 45” on the classic bluegrass recording Bean Blossom.
Balsam Range kicked off with a fun jam session in 2007 in Haywood County, North Carolina, where all the men live. “Next thing you know we found ourselves saying, ‘Maybe we should do some shows,’ and it just kind of snowballed from there,” Melton remembers. “We didn’t really intend for it to take off like it did.”
The group members bring a conglomeration of musical tastes beyond bluegrass. Nicholson is an aficionado of classic country. Smith digs classic jazz. Melton has some rockabilly in his soul, while Surrett’s palate covers everything from Southern Gospel to Southern Rock.
“All those influences raise their head occasionally,” Smith said. “We do all kinds of different material.”
“Nobody scoffs at anyone else’s tastes,” Surrett said. “Some of it makes its way into the record at some point or other. I’m the guilty one as far as the Allman Brothers goes. Buddy Melton is super at finding great songs, and Darren also has a memory for obscure gems that haven’t been cut in years. He’s sung songs that we ended up recording that I had never heard before, like Jim & Jesse songs and stuff like that, that escaped me somehow through the past. We just all bring stuff together, pick the best, vote on it, and go.”
Three years into it, the band had gained a strong enough following that peers in the music industry nominated the band for Emerging Artist Of The Year. In 2011, they were nominated for that award again, but it was the Song Of The Year trophy that they brought home for “Trains I Missed.” Melton explains about the song’s success, “Just listen to the words. Everybody goes through troubles and trials and tribulations in life. When you look back on it, you realize had it not been for those, you wouldn’t be where you are now.”
That’s a life lesson Melton learned all too well. The talented tenor was sidelined for a few months in the spring of 2012 after what could have been a career-ending accident. Injured when he was kicked in the face while loading cattle, Melton’s face and sinus cavities—an intricate part of a singer’s resonation—were damaged. He didn’t know if his voice would be altered or if he would even be able to sing again. “There’s always that doubt in the back of your mind,” Melton said. The rest of the band also wondered if they would be hearing the same old Buddy. The day Melton came home from the hospital, Caleb took him over to the studio to record some scratch vocals. “We were all anticipating what it was going to sound like,” Caleb said. The first song Melton tried was the poignant “Wide River To Cross.” Smith remembers, “It was awesome! He was singing beautiful and true and right on pitch. It was an answer to prayer.”
His fans, however, didn’t know if Melton would be able to return to the stage. On April 7, 2012, at the Colonial Theater in Canton, N.C., Melton strode up to the microphone to perform “Trains I Missed” while the uneasy audience watched in anticipation. “They didn’t know if I’d be able to sing or not,” Melton said. Adds Smith, “Kleenex made a lot of money that night.”
“It’s like singing with a new tool,” Melton said. “You learn how to do things differently to get the same result. It’s still working, and I’m still trying.”
Even Melton’s traumatic story turned out for the band’s betterment, showing the quintet their fans’ diehard devotion and providing the impetus for the online community of Balsam Nation. “It’s kind of a fan club/family,” Caleb explains. “We wanted folks to see the side of us that maybe they don’t get to see sometimes. Darren and I did a few skits together, and it was a lot of fun. People don’t get to see the studio, how it goes, and it’s cool to be able to show them that and let them inside the doors and behind the glass.”
“We just want to stay connected a little more with the people,” said Tim. “The only way we know to provide anything for anybody is to play more music, so we try to record things throughout the year that Balsam Nation members get—bonus stuff. That was the whole concept—trying to generate a community of folks to talk to us and talk to one another. It’s been surprisingly good for us.”
Whether it’s the website or some other reason, Balsam Range has taken off with seven number-one songs to the band’s credit, including “Last Train To Kitty Hawk,” “Caney Fork River,” “Trains I Missed,” “Gonna Be Movin’,” “Row By Row,” “Could Do You Some Good,” and “Any Old Road.” Their latest CD, Papertown, stayed atop the Bluegrass Unlimited chart for five months, was number two of CMT Edge 10 Favorite Americana Albums of 2012, and number two of the online magazine PopMatters Best Of Bluegrass 2012.
Another pivotal moment for the band came when John Hopkins of the Zac Brown Band discovered Balsam Range’s sound. “Besides the fact that they were amazing players and great performers, I thought they had substance, and their sound was outstanding,” Hopkins recalls. He asked the band to back him on his solo project, Daylight. “It was kind of a shock to us,” Darren Nicholson said. “We’re all fans of the Zac Brown Band, have their records and love their music. He had heard ‘Blue Mountain’ on SiriusXM radio and fell in love with it, and that’s kind of how it started.”
Then, to support the CD, Balsam Range performed several shows with Hopkins. “It’s totally different,” Nicholson said. “With our music, we’re kind of on cruise control. Some of his music is very traditional bluegrass sounding, and some of it isn’t. It’s all original, and it’s all very arrangement oriented, so that creates quite a challenge. He has a rock-and-roll background, so we experimented with a lot of things, recording in a different manner than we normally do. We all embraced that and all are willing to try something new and have fun with it.”
In addition to the joyful performances, the group gained many new fans and more exposure from media outlets that don’t usually cover bluegrass. “It’s amazing how many people come up to us and said, ‘I never really listened to bluegrass or I don’t really like bluegrass, but I like you guys.’ A lot of people, I feel like when we get to do those shows, are getting exposed to it, because John always makes sure that we do our songs. It’s not like you’re going to hear Balsam Range with John Driscoll Hopkins and that’s a totally different thing. Balsam Range is still its own entity, too.”
Balsam Range is one of the few bands in bluegrass with no turnover in personnel. In its seven-year existence, the original unit of five guys remains intact. Divergent personalities merged musically, bringing separate but equal gifts to the mix.
“Buddy’s the guy that’s got a list of ten or twelve songs for us to do, and he kick starts us,” Smith said. “Mark is a killer banjo player. His right hand is perfect.”
“Buddy’s a thinker. He plans ahead.” Melton adds, “Caleb’s a multi-talented guy. He can sing, play. He’s able to do everything. Caleb is very persistent. Some of us tend to get more up and down than he is. He can stay leveled out. Darren’s always joking around, keeping it fun while traveling and on stage. Tim is also a funny guy. He’s a big part of who we are on stage with his emcee work. There’s a very serious side of him too. He has a strong faith, and a lot of that comes out in what we do in our songs.
“There’s not any strong egos in this band,” Melton said. “There’s four singers. We switch it up depending on what we feel like the song needs—who sings it and what the harmony parts will be. Five equal partners doing the same thing—the unity of that you can keep something together. If you have one guy thinking he’s something better, he’s going to pull it apart eventually.”
The band of Merry Men continues to have a joyous time on stage and in the studio. They put the wraps on their annual Winter Concert Series at the Colonial Theatre in Canton, N.C., on April 5 and have been putting the final touches on their aptly titled fifth album, Five. “We all mesh real good together,” Smith said. “We pick well together. We sing well together. We’re all friends, or I think we still are!”