There are a fair number of bluegrass bands that can make me dance in my seat and cry within the space of a couple of songs. But Balsam Range, while doing just that with the new Mountain Home Music Co. release Aeonic, is the first to send me to the dictionary.
Aeonic, it turns out, is Greek for something that endures. And Balsam Range clearly has done that over a high-profile career that has made the band one of the best and most consistent in the business.
Aeonic is everything we’ve come to expect from a band that features an IBMA award-winning vocalist, Buddy Melton, exquisite harmonies, and solid pickers on every instrument, every song. And it’s expertly produced by the band, providing one of the few exceptions to my rule that bands shouldn’t produce themselves because an outside ear can identify issues that the insiders won’t.
Aeonic is solid from the opening mandolin riff of The Girl Who Invented the Wheel to the closing notes of George Harrison’s iconic Beatles song, If I Needed Someone.
There are a handful of songs that are made for radio, including the bouncy Get Me Gone and the previously mentioned Girl Who Invented the Wheel. And there are a handful of tender, thought-provoking ballads and religious-tinged songs that, to me, are the heart of this project.
The most powerful of these, Angel Too Soon, is hard to listen to with dry eyes, but I can’t stop myself from going back to it time and again, and I find myself singing the chorus as I move through the day.
Writers William M. Maddox and Paul W. Thorn tell the heartbreaking tale of a young girl who dies, the worst nightmare of parents everywhere. These lines are so devastatingly beautiful that I simultaneously wish I’d never heard them AND wish I’d written them:
“Today would have been her birthday,
so her mama made her favorite cake.
She wasn’t there to blow out the candles,
But daddy lit ‘em anyway.”
Nearly as powerful, and just as honest, is Help Me To Hold On, a song about those who are marginalized in America. Writers Milan Miller and Thomm Jutz focus on a homeless man who is “sad as sad can be” and a 17-year-old girl contemplating suicide after dealing with “bad choices and a bad man.” It’s effective without being preachy.
Still, I have some reservations about Aeonic, which, frankly, probably says more about me than about Balsam Range. The band has performed at such a high level for so long that a few good but not great songs here have a certain sounds-like-I’ve-heard-them-before sameness that makes them all run together. And while Melton is an outstanding vocalist worthy of his trophies, the band has three other outstanding singers – Caleb Smith, Tim Surrett and Darren Nicholson. I long to hear more of them out front, especially Nicholson, whose voice is a secret weapon.
Overall, though, Aeonic is a winner, proving that Balsam Range hasn’t only endured but thrived. You should own this record.