At last September’s International Bluegrass Music Association Awards, also known as the “Hillbilly Grammys,” the smart money was on Jerry Douglas’ Earls of Leicester to win the Entertainer of the Year grand prize. Formed to pay tribute to bluegrass forefathers Flatt & Scruggs, the Earls were reigning champions for the past three straight years. In a surprising upset, however, Entertainer honors instead went to Balsam Range, a workmanlike North Carolina quintet that has quietly built up a reputation over the past decade as one of the top acts in bluegrass. This was actually Balsam Range’s second time as Entertainer of the Year, after winning in 2014, but the fact that they topped the seemingly unstoppable Earls was remarkable.
Since forming in 2007 in Western North Carolina’s mountainous Haywood County, Balsam Range have released nine albums, including the new Aeonic. All five members have been around the block, repeatedly, with other bands, and they’re not especially flashy or cool. But Balsam Range crosses plenty of boundaries, hitting a deft balance between the revered traditions of old-school bluegrass and the hopped-up eclecticism of contemporary newgrass. Equal parts country-flavored bluegrass and 1970s-vintage progressive country, Balsam Range sound like a band that might have been playing Austin’s old Armadillo World Headquarters back in the day, opening for Michael Martin Murphey.
The new album’s title Aeonic is meant to convey longevity and carrying forward, and it hits notes ranging from sly (the she-done-left-me kickoff track “The Girl Who Invented the Wheel”) to tragic (“Angel Too Soon,” “Help Me to Hold On”) with the road-weary travelogue “The Rambler” somewhere in between. But Aeonic’s most immediately notable songs are a couple of wild-card covers. There’s Ray LaMontagne’s “Hobo Blues,” a Balsam Range soundcheck staple for years, in an arrangement along the lines of the Allman Brothers unplugged.
Even better is a double time version of the Beatles’ “If I Need Someone” with an appropriately symphonic feel thanks to fiddler Buddy Melton playing through an octave pedal to duplicate a larger string section. Balsam Range being a modest bunch, it’s fitting that their first recorded venture into Fab Four territory would be a song by the quiet Beatle, George Harrison.
“You never know what we’ll come up with,” says Melton. “Take any song and run it through Haywood County, and that’s what it sounds like no matter the genre.”
While four different Balsam Range members sing lead on various songs, It’s Melton’s aching tenor that serves as the group’s vocal calling card, especially when he brings the pain. “Help Me to Hold On” sketches out a series of characters at the end of various ropes, struggling to get by. And the Paul Thorn-penned “Angel Too Soon” (which is about exactly what the title suggests) makes its bid as the saddest song in all of recorded history.
“The first time I heard that song, I could not get home fast enough,” says Melton. “I have a daughter who was fairly young, and it hit me really hard. Reminds you that things are not always permanent, so be grateful while you’ve got it. There’s another plan sometimes.”
Throughout, Aeonic is just old-timey enough and just modern enough to make bluegrass feel like it’s still got plenty of life left.
“The best way to promote traditional bluegrass is to try and be original and do your own thing,” says mandolinist Darren Nicholson. “Some traditionalists almost killed it by always wanting to revert back to the old. But if all you’re doing is homage to the old and nobody’s doing anything new, then it dies. When Bill Monroe created bluegrass, he was cutting-edge and different. We’re trying to do the same thing. It’s hard to get too far away from the roots in bluegrass, but you have to put your own stamp on it.”