Now seven albums (plus a Christmas album, a retrospective recording with a pops orchestra, and a terrific collaboration with John Driskell Hopkins) deep into a twelve-year run, there are no signs that these Haywood County, North Carolina veterans are nearing the end of their road. The playing and singing remain meticulous, as one expects when one of the music’s best ears—Tim Surrett—is in the band, and their material remains as far ranging as ever. All the while, they remain firmly within the broad bounds of contemporary bluegrass: Aeonic is appropriately titled.
Balsam Range is a rarity, a hometown band comprised of neighbours and friends who have travailed bluegrass highways to mature into one of the industry’s foremost outfits. Their list of achievements is long including two-time IBMA Album of the Year and two-time and reigning IBMA Entertainers of the Year.
When I first started listening to bluegrass, one of the elements that attracted me most was that at any moment I could attune my ear to a singular instrument and be captivated by the energy and rhythm being played. I was reminded of this while listening to “Tumbleweed Town,” Aeonic’s second track. I might start by focusing on Caleb Smith’s smooth lead playing, but I could as easily be intrigued by Buddy Melton’s fiddle or Marc Pruett’s banjo flourishes. At the same time, keen listening to Darren Nicholson’s sparking mandolin notes and Surrett’s pulsating bass opens additional dimensions. Such is the magic of bluegrass interplay, the ability of individuals to meld into something far grander than its parts.
Aeonic is filled with such revelations.
Moments of pensive honesty (as in “The Rambler,”) reckless abandon (“Get Me Gone,”) and grim reality (“Hobo Blues”) are set side-by-side presumably to provide ready contrast to the components of this multi-dimensional band. With four lead vocalists, including two-time and current IBMA Male Vocalist of the Year Buddy Melton, Balsam Range can bring any number of bluegrass shades to their songs.
Although individual credits are not provided, I believe it is Nicholson, who also take lead on “The Rambler,” providing an equally strong vocal appearance with “My Cross to Bear,” an introspective and—as typically occurs in bluegrass—self-centered song of guilt and regret. “Hobo Blues” and “Graveyard Blues” are classic-sounding songs (the first written by Ray LaMontagne, the second by Barry Bales) of determination and loss in the face of increasing odds well-sung by (I’m hoping) Caleb Smith, who also sings “Tumbleweed Town.” Completely foregoing bluegrass for acoustic Moody Blues-inspired rock ‘n’ roll, Balsam Range concludes Aeonic with Surrett’s dramatic interpretation of Rubber Soul’s “If I Needed Someone”: multi-layered, this track positively explodes out of the speakers—play it loud!
Melton’s finest lead singing may be found on Milan Miller and Thomm Jutz’s “Help Me to Hold On,” another reflective song of spirit and strength in challenging circumstances. I personally always appreciate “a real fast song with a lonesome feel” so the chart-topping “The Girl Who Invented the Wheel” is a favourite. The band’s faith is also represented by the uplifting “Let My Life Be a Light” (catch the powerful instrumental breaks on this one) while “An Angel Too Soon” is far too cloying for repeated listening.
With their seventh album and now well into their second decade as a cohesive bluegrass force, Balsam Range has earned the right and perhaps obligation to experiment with the boundaries of bluegrass. With Aeonic, the group provides a wide-range of bluegrass experiences for their listeners, all the while retaining a presence unified in the spirit of traditions. This is another landmark album for Balsam Range.
And a good start to a new year in bluegrass at Fervor Coulee.