The grass grows bluer…

Published 8:04 pm Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Balsam Range brings N.C. roots music to town

So, you think you know all about North Carolina’s Outer Banks?


For instance, what do you know about “The Last Train To Kitty Hawk?” Aha! Just as I suspected — you know zilch.

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If you are willing to learn, show up at the Suffolk Center for Cultural Arts on Saturday at 8 p.m. for the final show of the season, where you can hear the answer.

Your instructors will be Balsam Range, five hot bluegrass cats from Haywood County, located in the beautiful North Carolina mountains, of which Balsam is but one range.

These five acoustic musicians are in great demand these days, playing bluegrass, not “faux” grass, but the real, honest-to-goodness grass.

Recently, I pestered Darren Nicholson at home — caught him in the midst of his coaching time with his Little League son, and it was a hot conversation. He tells it like it is. There were no holds barred when I asked him about today’s music scene.

“There is,” he said, “a huge resurgence for bluegrass and all kinds of root music. Most of today’s country music is burned out, and people are becoming disgusted with all the crap played on radio.”

Whew and amen!

More and more folks, young people included, are hopping on the pure country bandwagon, said Nicholson, citing Balsam Range concert attendance into five digits as evidence.

The band’s name comes from the home base of the five buddies, all of whom still live there.

“We’ve been together for eight years, “and in the last couple of years, the crowds have been getting bigger. “We (bluegrass in general) have never been mainstream. We have been the underdogs.”

The underdogs are now top dog. Last year, they won two prestigious awards. They were named the International Bluegrass Music Association’s “Entertainer Of the Year,” and that organization’s “Vocal Group Of the Year.” Heady stuff for these five guys: Nicholson, Buddy Melton, Tim Surrett (resident comedian), Caleb Smith, (the beardless one) and Dr. (yes, Dr.) Marc Pruett, a Grammy Award winner.

All the guys have won prestigious awards and, collectively, the crew has been recognized for its talent and showmanship.

Individually, they have peformed with such folks as Brad Paisley and Vince Gill and/or have been members of well-known gospel groups, performed at the Grand Ole Opry, written music for the acclaimed outdoor drama, “Unto These Hills,” performed in the heart of Cherokee.

They make no bones about loving their home territory, sometimes nicknamed “Papertown,” referring to the area’s paper mills.

Their shows are upbeat, mixing some funny stuff with the music and mixing jazz, gospel, swing and old-time music with their multitudinous No. 1 hits.

Those who catch Saturday’s show will also find out about that Kitty Hawk choo-choo and have something new to share with friends during the annual Outer Banks vacation.

During a 60-year career spanning newspapers, radio and television, Frank Roberts has been there and done that. Today, he’s doing it in retirement from North Carolina, but he continues to keep an eye set on Suffolk and an ear cocked on country music. Email him at