Balsam Range have a lot to brag about. In just over a decade, they’ve managed to accumulate a stellar reputation as one of bluegrass’ best hopes, notching up two IBMA Awards in a single year, one for Entertainer of the Year and the other for Vocal Group of the Year, both of which were bestowed in 2014. The band, made up of Buddy Melton on fiddle and lead vocals, Darren Nicholson on mandolin and vocals; Tim Surrett on standup bass and vocals, Caleb Smith, and banjo player Dr. Marc Pruett, are all accredited bluegrass veterans, each with accomplishments accrued in his own right. Nevertheless, it’s their combined efforts that have reaped them their rewards, with six albums that rank them with the best in the biz.
Consequently, if the band wants to rest on their considerable laurels by replaying their greatest hits with the Atlanta Pops Orchestra Ensemble in tow, few fans would argue that they’ve earned the right to do so. That said, Mountain Overture equates to the Balsams’ best of, given the fact that the symphony and its strings are far from intrusive, and on some songs, hardly noticeable at all. That’s fine of course; these songs stand on their own and any opportunity for a reboot is one worth revisiting. Like Town Mountain, Flatt Lonesome and others of their ilk, their brand of bluegrass is decidedly pop-centric, and while their instrumental acumen is first rate, their accessibility factor is also of prime importance.
On those songs where the orchestra is given more of a voice — on Eldorado Blue, Matthew, I Hear the Mountains, and Any Old Road (Will Take You There) in particular — the results are immediately endearing. The band’s penchant for affecting narrative ballads (Jack Diamond, From a Georgia Battlefield, et. al.) is mined to full effect, and applied in tandem with the band’s own instrumental arsenal. With material that’s driven by strong stories to begin with, the heightened drama instilled by strings would seem an apt combination to begin with.
That said, newcomers ought to appreciate the opportunity for any introduction, regardless of how the arrangements are construed. Balsam Range is a band that adheres to all the precepts of grassicana while continually making melody their first priority. Consequently, their music transcends any single genre and rolls nicely into an overall easy listening motif.
Mountain Overture may be a title that overstated the case somewhat, as far as the full effect of its orchestral embellishment, but it ranks as a mighty impressive set of songs regardless.