When Balsam Range came onto the scene in 2007, we all knew this Haywood County band would quickly become a major name in our beloved bluegrass world. It wasn’t because they were instrumental and vocal heavyweights—that’s common in our world; it was because they had that intangible thing, that mojo of musical symbiosis. Each person brings just the right combination of voice, timing, groove, energy, and picking to fill every gap. Replace just one person and they’d still be good or even great, but they wouldn’t be be this Balsam Range. And why is that distinction important? Because this Balsam Range is arguably the finest example of today’s bluegrass music.
Fans of Balsam Range have long since stopped asking if a new release is good, instead they’ve been conditioned, and honestly so, to ask “Well, how great is it?”
Mountain Voodoo is officially released on November 11, and it is one of those albums that should make you feel guilty streaming for free. Maybe it’s just me, but a couple times a year I’ll come across an album or artist so good that I need to know that they have some of my money in their pocket. It’s a small way of keeping the artistic world spinning on its proper axis. Balsam Range, once again, has that effect.
One of the most noticeable aspects of this album is just how good it sounds from a production standpoint. (Bluegrass bands and musicians take note: engineer Scott Barnett with mixing and mastering by Van Atkins at Crossroads Studios in Asheville, NC can compete with any studio anywhere.) From recording to mastering, your goal is to combine the crispness of instruments and voices with a final silky soft clarity. Much like combining sweet and spicy flavors on good chicken wings—the country version of yin and yang—the right mixture of these seemingly opposite things creates a wonderful experience. (Yes, I went there)
The first notes you hear on the opening of Something ‘Bout That Suitcase, come from guitarist and guitar luthier Caleb Smith. If there is an unsung hero in this band, it’s Caleb. His calm stage demeanor belies his blazing Larry Keel-like guitar breaks that quickly sneak up on you without warning. This opening track features the undeniable voice of Buddy Melton, a voice that brings new life into familiar topics such as wanderlust, the longing for home, and the tragic beauty of life in the jagged North Carolina mountains.
Blue Collar Dreams is one of the more traditional bluegrass songs on the album and features both the amazing right hand of banjoist Dr. Marc Pruett, and the vocal duo work of Smith and Melton. This track also shows off the mandolin of Darren Nicholson, a guy whose playing matches his stature, strong and solid. His mandolin becomes the de facto foundation that holds tight through any ripping bluegrass tornado.
Then we get to Voodoo Doll. From the opening notes, it is apparent this is a pivotal track on this album. Bassist Tim Surrett forgoes traditional rhythms and brings a smooth determined patience to the verses that move with the haunting nature of Louisiana backwater bayous. There’s a calm reckoning in Melton’s voice as he sings, “You must have a voodoo doll of me / You must have a deal with the devil himself.” Between the erie dobro slides and the tasteful bass solo (a welcome surprise!) near the end, Surrett drives this song.
Eldorado Blue, Rise and Shine, and Wish You Were Here feature vocal harmonies on par with the best of the best. Winners of the 2015 IBMA Vocal Group of the Year award, we should expect to see this album be a front-runner for the same award for 2017.
Each member brings expert level picking abilities to the plate, but we have to specifically mention the banjo playing of Dr. Marc Pruett. In Chain Gang Blues we hear the right hand that played a massive role (pun intended) in helping Ricky Skaggs record one of the best bluegrass albums of modern times, Bluegrass Rules. A handful of years later (wink, wink) Pruett’s banjo rolls are still so clean and precise that each note has a unique soft quality, much like a single rain drop, but put together they become a life sustaining, inescapable torrential downpour.
From traditional bluegrass to soft Gospel styles, with some Texas-flavored swing and Earl Scruggs-inspired surprises sprinkled through the back half of the album, the thirteen tracks provide an encompassing tour of life in western North Carolina. But the music of Balsam Range doesn’t just speak for this little slice of Appalachian heaven; it speaks to how beautiful this music has become without losing its foundational roots. It speaks to the deep mines of discovery still to be explored within Earl Scruggs’ rolls and Bill Monroe’s double stops. It speaks to the power of five mountain boys that stand onstage and show us bluegrass music is still one of the most beautiful artistic experiences we have.
Mountain Voodoo will most likely be featured at next year’s awards ceremonies. So buy the album. Put your money in their pocket. And sit back knowing you’ve made a wise investment in today’s bluegrass.
Keep up with Balsam Range here for tour dates and news. Mountain Voodoo is available wherever bluegrass music is sold.