Any attempt to tally the number of awards and accolades Balsam Range has accumulated since the band’s formation in 2007 is no easy task. Given their multiple citations by the IBMA both individually and collectively (a total of 13 awards in all), their continuous tenure at the top of the charts (including the three number singles that reached #1 here at Bluegrass Today), and the audience acclaim spawned from appearances from coast to coast, one could be tempted to pigeonhole them as bluegrass traditionalists who make music strictly within past parameters.
In truth, nothing could be further from the truth. While the North Carolina-based band draws inspiration from certain archival efforts, the nine albums they’ve tallied so far make a point to emphasize contemporary material, and open up songs to their own interpretation. Their latest album, Aeonic is no exception, thanks to the inclusion of favorite songwriters Milan Miller and Adam Wright, as well as deft covers by George Harrison (!) and Ray LaMontagne.
We spoke to singer, fiddler and IBMA Best Vocalist winner Buddy Melton to get his thoughts on the reasons behind Balsam Range’s ongoing surge of success.
BLUEGRASS TODAY: With all the awards you’ve accumulated over the past decade, do you feel pressure to maintain a certain standard?
BUDDY MELTON: I don’t think it’s the awards so much as the fact we set the bar higher and higher for ourselves every year. We’re just working harder and harder to achieve new goals. Like most artists, we’re harder on ourselves than anyone else might be. It is an honor to be recognized. The awards do give you the feeling that you’re doing something right.
You’re very modest. But does the fact that you’ve achieved all the success you have in the past ten years surprise you at all?
We do feel blessed, and shocked, and surprised. In the beginning, we just got together, five guys from the same county that just wanted to play music together just for the fun of it. Sometimes the best things in life just come to you. You can try and try and try, and you work so hard to make things happen, and then it just leads to a lot of frustration. We just got together for the fun of it and so here we are. It’s just a great feeling. We were just living in the same town and happened to be great friends, so it was an ideal scenario.
The title of the new album, Aeonic, is a Greek word that translates as “timing” and “endurance,” so it appears that the meaning that’s implied ties in to your entire trajectory.
This album very much recognizes where we are as a group. The artwork and the title kind of translate that way. When you’re in a band, it’s like a group of gears. One gear turns the other gear. All the gears impact each other, and when it’s working right, they’re more efficient. Our music has continued to evolve. We have both contemporary songs and traditional sounding songs. The traditions move forward with a new generation of players.
How did you go about choosing the material for the new album?
The process is always very similar. We’re always compiling songs. One of my favorite things to do as far as listening to music is to listen to new songwriters that haven’t been widely heard. We try to find songs that will fit the band, so we get together and listen to all those songs we’ve complied over the last year or so. Oftentimes, there are songs that we’ve listened to that don’t make the final cut.
On the new album, there are songs we’ve wanted to record for a while. Sometimes there are songs that stand out, but they don’t make it for one reason or another. Every song has its own life to it, and every song has its place, so putting together an album is like putting together a good live show. You try to have something for everybody. It’s a process. Sometimes we work songs up and it doesn’t work out, and they end up getting worked up differently a year later. It’s quite a process but it’s a fun process really to come up with those different arrangements, and sing the things we like to sing. Everybody brings something to the table.
The Hobo Blues song, for example, was something Caleb was singing in soundcheck for the last couple of years. It was a guitar/vocal thing and we’ve actually played around with it for years, although now seemed like a good time to do something with it. Every song kind of had a story to how it came about and the vision we had for it. We’ve talked about some of these songs several times in the past and so we tried it out this time around and it just seemed to fit the project.
You record a lot of other people’s songs. Does the band contribute to the songwriting as well?
Many of these songwriters that we use are folks we’ve had relationships with ever since the beginning. You develop these relationships over time. For me, it’s about having a great song and material that represents the band properly, whether it’s written within, or written from the outside. We all bring songs to the table. We’re not adamant about strictly using songs written by the band, but if we have a good one, we’ll get it out there. As with any band, it’s important to have your own sound and to have songs that fit the originality of that approach. So it’s always been all about that.
For example, the first song on the album, The Girl Who Invented the Wheel, wasn’t written as a bluegrass song. It was a very quirky kind of slow-sounding song, and I just loved the lyrics, and I could hear it with a banjo and a fiddle. In my mind, I could hear that kind of arrangement. It’s not about getting songs presented to us when we’re getting ready to record. We rarely do that. We just try to put our twist to the songs we have.
How would you describe your trajectory up to this point?
I feel like it’s been a continuing climb. We’ve been getting out and playing more places and meeting new people and expanding our musical style. It’s exciting. When we did the first project we didn’t even have a name. I remember our producer, Mickey Gamble, coming to us and suggesting we do a Bill Monroe tribute album. We’d be the core band and have a whole bunch of guests on it. That was supposed to be our first album, but we all sat down and decided that that wasn’t what we wanted to be early on. We didn’t want to be a cover band where there’s not a lot of originality to it. We started that project and about half the songs were Bill Monroe covers. But we decided to put some original songs on there and started merging the material so we could have some originality. I’m glad we did that.
So let’s talk about that originality factor. How have you seen your music evolve over the course of the past ten or eleven years?
It’s matured a bit, just as we have as individuals. On the new album, for example, there are traditional sounding songs and then there are some contemporary covers, like the Beatles song, If I Needed Someone. If you look back over our past albums, there’s always been some variation in style. Everybody in our band likes different things, so I think that helps the process. Caleb and Tim tend to like jazz, so we’ll play some jazzy things from time to time. Marc likes traditional bluegrass stuff. I have different likes and interests in music. We all have different interests in music. So when we bring that all together, it brings originality to it all. I think we’ve grown, but that doesn’t mean it’s gotten any more complicated. We’re just willing to try something new.
You took a really original move by recording a couple of albums, including your last one, Mountain Overture, with the Atlanta Pops Orchestra Ensemble. How did that come about?
That was something I wanted to do for a long time and it made for a unique sound. We’ve had more and more of our songs scored for orchestra and it’s fun artistically because it’s such a big full sound, and we enjoy hearing all those other parts. It also opens the doors for other listeners who might not enjoy bluegrass, but can still come to a concert series and hear the orchestra and the songs, and maybe come away as a bluegrass fan and enjoy the music as a whole — not just our music, but the genre overall. So its an opportunity to expose the music outside of the typical setting in which it’s usually presented.
Given your willingness to expand your template, have you gotten any negative pushback from the traditionalists? Have you found the need to balance your approach in any way?
I think there’s always going to be a need to balance. Everybody has their opinion on what music should be, whether it’s bluegrass or country — new country or old country — or rock and roll. Everybody has their favorite. The first generation of fans grabbed onto bluegrass, and forever more figured that’s what it should always be. There’s nothing wrong with that if that’s what you like, and there are plenty of great artists doing that. Then there are other artists trying different things stylistically, and it all sort of works together. A really great festival has a lot of different things and a variety of music that the fans can enjoy.
What kind of comments do you get from your listeners?
We have gotten some feedback from folks who only like traditional bluegrass, but then we’ve also had people who have come to us and said they’ve always been a fan of a particular song we’ve covered, or maybe an original tune that touched their lives in a certain way. That’s when you know you’re doing something right, when people’s lives are impacted in a positive way because of something you’ve done musically. It makes me feel good about being willing to push for new things. Everyone has troubles in life, so anything that can help them through their struggles is a powerful thing. If the music moves somebody, then that makes their day a bit better. So all our projects have a little bit of both. It is a balancing act. We love the traditional stuff — we’re not turning our back on it — but we’re also trying to do new things as well.
There are a lot of labels people attach to bluegrass music these days — it can be “jam,” “grassicana,” “nu-grass” or simply “Americana.” What’s your take on it all?
Over the years I’ve played with different bands and performed different genres of music, and there’s always someone trying to figure out what to call it. I don’t know. It’s hard to determine. I don’t really worry about it that much, or whether it goes to one extreme or another. We’re just aiming for quality music… great lyrics, great harmonies, real quality.
In my opinion, good music is good music, no matter what you qualify it as. We just push for that and don’t really care if someone calls it bluegrass or nu-grass or any of these other broader definitions. I just care whether it’s good music.