A Perfect Union: Balsam Range and the Atlanta Pops Orchestra Ensemble

Balsam Range with the Atlanta Pops Orchestra Ensemble – photo by Mike Duncan Photography

Granted, one might consider a billing of bluegrass and small orchestra as an unlikely combination. And who could blame you? On the other hand, as Balsam Range and the Atlanta Pops Orchestra Ensemble proved when they performed together at the Clayton Center for the Arts in Maryville, TN on October 13, the partnership was not only effective, but more than that, extraordinarily moving as well.

Over the course of some 19 selections — most performed in tandem but occasionally each ensemble on its own — band and orchestra provided a powerful performance, as well as one that blended equal elements of both humor and humanity. The members of Balsam Range — 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 and baritone vocals) — stay true to their North Carolina roots while sharing an amusing rapport with one another that mostly seemed spontaneous. At the same time, they also acknowledged the unusual partnership that had resulted in the music that was being made onstage. 

“It’s not often you find three violins and a fiddle,” Smith remarked, pointing out the obvious.

Nevertheless, there were no awkward moments whatsoever. To the contrary, the orchestra, under the direction of conductor and arranger Wes Funderburk, heightened the drama plied during the proceedings, synching so well in fact, that one has to wonder why this combination hasn’t been attempted more before. In that regard, Balsam Range and the Atlanta Pops Orchestra Ensemble are pioneers as far as that purpose and pursuit, having released the brilliant album, Mountain Overture, in tandem in 2018. Not surprisingly, every song from that album was performed this particular evening — Trains I Missed, Matthew, Eldorado Blue, I Hear the Mountains, Any Old Road (Will Take You There), Blue Mountain, Last Train to Kitty Hawk, Burning Georgia Down, Jack Diamond, and the song that opened the show, Matthew, a fairly obscure John Denver song that set the tone for all that followed. 

Interestingly enough, the first set also ended with an unexpected cover, a take on the Beatles’ If I Needed Someone that sounded like it was actually written with this option in mind.

“It was taken from a traditional bluegrass album, Rubber Soul,” Surrett joked as he noted the irony.

Notably, the orchestra fulfilled a role that went far beyond simply a supporting role. When the ensemble took center stage for a version of Ashokan Farewell, featuring violin soloist Mary Burndrett, it brought many people in the audience close to tears.

The magnificent setting of the Clayton Center, located on the campus of Maryville College, added to the ambiance as well. 

The concert came to a rousing conclusion with a take on the Allman Brothers One Way Out that found the Atlanta Pops Ensemble almost akin to a jam band. Indeed, Funderburk, the conductor, took the unusual turn of blowing a mean clarinet solo. 

Kevin Leahy, the orchestra’s percussionist and its CEO, acknowledged the synthesis of sounds during intermission, noting that all forms of music are making a similar evolution these days, and that the lines between different genres are being blurred in the process.

Earlier, Melton remarked that the collaboration has allowed all the participants to find common ground. “Music is truly a universal language regardless of the style of music played,” he said in an interview prior to the concert. “Inevitably, it’s made up of the same notes.”

As for the band’s prolific partnership with the orchestra, Melton said that he’s quite impressed.

“Several times, I have gotten so caught up in listening the music that I forget to sing,” he admitted.

Fortunately, he didn’t. The harmonies shared by the band were spot on, and the fact that five out of the six players could adeptly take center stage singing on specific songs proved their prowess as well.

Ultimately, the concert was an opportunity to enjoy two remarkable ensembles sharing sounds in sync. It was, as a result, an extraordinary evening.

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About the Author

Lee Zimmerman

Lee Zimmerman has been a writer and reviewer for the better part of the past 20 years. He writes for the following publications — No Depression, Goldmine, Country Standard TIme, Paste, Relix, Lincoln Center Spotlight, Fader, and Glide. A lifelong music obsessive and avid collector, he firmly believes that music provides the soundtrack for our lives and his reverence for the artists, performers and creative mind that go into creating their craft spurs his inspiration and motivation for every word hie writes.