Mountain Home Records
4½ stars (out of 5)
By Donald Teplyske
Bluegrass music evolves.
Whether you are a steadfast traditionalist, a breezy newgrasser, a proponent of the ‘big tent,’ or a progressive noodler, one must be well-aware that bluegrass holds still for no one. Argue all you like about what is and what isn’t bluegrass, the fact remains that the identifying label has never been so broad.
Balsam Range is a band that encapsulates all that modern bluegrass represents. So consistently impressive that we can no longer expect their albums to be ‘better than their last,’ in less than a decade Balsam Range has hit the plateau of excellence few groups achieve. Like the Del McCoury Band, Blue Highway, and Alison Krauss & Union Station before them, a new release from Balsam Range is measured against their individual legacy.
Mountain Voodoo, their sixth album, lacks nothing.
Throughout the recording, Buddy Melton and Caleb Smith demonstrate that they are among the finest one-two vocal duos in bluegrass, while Tim Surrett delivers the lower parts with assurance. Self-producing, the band achieves precisely the sound desired, entirely contemporary (this is an album that couldn’t have been imagined twenty years ago) with ears wide open to the traditions that established the music.
One of the most appealing aspects of Balsam Range is their willingness to perform songs that do not follow the expected conventions of the genre. “Last Train to Kitty Hawk,” “Trains I Missed,” “From a Georgia Battlefield,” and “Day in the Life of a Railway Spike” are examples of songs that other bands may have passed on, but with which Balsam Range succeeded.
“Voodoo Doll,” written by Jeb Stuart Anderson (“I Like It, I Love It”) is another song that unfolds unexpectedly, and serves as the album’s centerpiece. A dark, southern gothic tale that boldly embraces a jam band rhythm, one well imagines this performed by the Infamous Stringdusters or Sam Bush. “Hello Heartache” explores swinging countrypolitan ‘sixties sounds and “Spring Hill” is a flavorful banjo tune from Marc Pruett featuring hot picking by all members of the group, with Smith’s guitar break notable.
The Sweet Lowdown’s Miriam Sonstenes contributes her impressive “Don’t Walk Away;” Darren Nicholson’s lead singing on this one is distinctive, a terrific bluegrass performance. When it comes to the industry awards, Nicholson hasn’t received his due as a mandolinist, but his tone is essential to Balsam Range’s presentation; on songs including “Eldorado Blue” and “Lines in the Sand” his playing adds atmosphere, deepening the intensity of the arrangements.
Balsam Range understands the bluegrass audience and marketplace. Quality up-tempo, populist songs (“Blue Collar Dreams” and “Chain Gang Blues”) contrast with evocative, yearning pieces (“I Hear the Mountains” and “Rise and Shine”) and each should be well-received.
While all members of the group are world-class instrumentalists, and their lead and harmony parts are stellar, one wonders where Balsam Range would be without their ‘go to’ songwriter Milan Miller. With various co-writers, Miller contributes another five songs to the Balsam Range canon, including the album’s lead track “Something ’bout that Suitcase.” A challenging and seemingly odd choice to kick-off the album, the song’s arrangement, lyrics, and philosophical intent grows on the listener with repeated listening.
With no fewer than eight International Bluegrass Music Awards in recent years and many more nominations, Balsam Range is one of today’s most successful bluegrass bands. Mountain Voodoo is among 2016’s strongest bluegrass albums.