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Balsam Range brought down the house on Saturday night at the Carolina Civic Center Historic Theater in Lumberton. The five-man ensemble kept the crowd laughing - and their toes a-tapping - as they demonstrated just why they've become such a wild sensation in the Bluegrass world.
The group opened with the break-neck piece "Moon Over Memphis" before giving the crowd a taste of their most recent album, Moxie and Mettle. The album's hit single "Richest Man" showed off several reasons why Balsam Range continues to steamroll the Bluegrass industry. Fiddle player and lead vocalist Buddy Melton has a beautiful, exciting tenor voice, which added a special vibrancy to this song about finding value in life's small offerings. Melton is a two-time recipient of the International Bluegrass Music Association (IBMA) award for best male vocalist (2014 and 2018).
What makes Balsam Range so spectacular is that Melton, with all his talent and charisma, makes up only a portion of the band's overall exuberance. Guitarist Caleb Smith not only picked his way through some impressive solos, but he also sang with his resonant country baritone, commanding the concert hall during the song "Matthew." Smith learned to play guitar from his father, a preacher with a flair for thumb-picking, folk music, and bluegrass. His mother, he said, had different tastes, preferring the music of James Taylor and Jackson Browne. He dedicated to her a rocking rendition of Jim Croce's classic "You Don't Mess Around with Jim." Balsam Range isn't what you'd expect from IBMA's 2018 Entertainer of the Year; their music and personalities harbor deep, old-time values that ring through everything they do.
Bassist Tim Surrett stepped away from the upright for the Croce song and picked up a resonator guitar, which he utilized like a gritty slide guitar. His smoking solo roughened the edges of the group's overall clean-cut bluegrass feel. Additionally, Surrett kept the crowd entertained with his humorous anecdotes between songs, and his luscious harmonies during them.
Mandolin player Darren Nicholson also dedicated a song to his mother: her favorite one that she constantly requests during their nightly phone conversations. His rich baritone voice swooned the crowd with "The Rambler," a song from the band's 2019 album Aeonic. "The good Lord made the rambler/But the devil taught him to ride," the chorus goes, and Nicholson crooned with a perfectly attuned spirit. Timeless lyrics like that run through Balsam Range's work, and it's no wonder that the tune was picked up by Netflix and used on the sitcom The Ranch. Not only did the band give the audience a look into their personal lives, but they also peppered in facts about their career.
For instance, they told a story about their recent trip to Los Angeles, joking about how "they're really starved for good Bluegrass" in the California metropolis. Before going onstage at a massive stadium show, their banjo player, Grammy award-winning Marc Pruett, tripped down a set of stairs, breaking part of his wrist and leg. He played the show anyway, even though he could only move one finger on his left hand - what a legend! "We found out that night that we've been overpaying him for years," Surrett joked. But Pruett put all jokes to rest as they broke out the infamously fast banjo jig, "Shenandoah Breakdown."
Originally from Haywood County, North Carolina, Balsam Range engaged with the crowd in Lumberton as if they had been close friends for a long time. There was an air of familiarity and kinship due in part to the homeliness of their music and lyrics, but also to the ease with which they commanded the stage. When they mentioned their small towns in Haywood County, many audience members clapped and cheered. If so many Haywood residents were in attendance, "who's minding the store?," Surrett jokingly asked the audience. However, it does merit mentioning that several moments noticeably troubled some audience members, principally during "Burning Georgia Down," an ode to the former Confederacy which repeatedly refers to Union soldiers as "devils dressed in blue." Though the instrumental breakdown during this song was wildly impressive musically, it was accompanied by this unavoidable small dose of sourness.
But for all it's worth, there is a reason that Balsam Range is at the top of the Bluegrass world - they have the talent and charisma required to move an entire audience, and to channel a way of life often forgotten in the modern digitized world. And all music aside, they practice what they preach. They were gracious to the crew and staff of the Carolina Civic Center, who continually put on marvelous shows in the heart of Lumberton, each concert as exciting and mesmerizing as the last.