Last year was a game changer for Balsam Range. They garnered seven IBMA Award nominations, and Papertown snagged the trophy for album of the year. Certainly, a tough act to follow. But with their new Mountain Home release, Five, Balsam Range bested themselves by further honing their musical vision into a sharp statement about what they hold near and dear to their hearts.
“Of course you want to equal or better the last one you did. But I feel like each album is a benchmark for where we are as a band. It’s a continual process,” Buddy Melton, Balsam Range’s vocalist-fiddle player, told CMT Edge between shows on a muggy June afternoon.
Indeed, Five is the sound of a confident band hitting their stride, which is remarkable considering that only a short time ago Melton’s singing voice was almost permanently silenced. On March 12, 2012, he got kicked while loading cattle on his farm and suffered severe head trauma. His forehead, nasal cavities, eye socket and sinuses were shattered, and he required multiple hours of brain and reconstructive surgery. His doctors told him it was unlikely that he’d ever be able to sing like he once had.
Yet after listening to Five, that prognosis seems inconceivable. Melton’s vocals on the record are as true and pure as any in the genre — past or present. And to that point, it wouldn’t be hyperbole to say that he just might be the most emotive singer in bluegrass today.
CMT Edge: One thing that’s striking about Five is that many of the musical styles under the ever-widening bluegrass tent are well-represented. Yet lyrically there seems to be less breadth. Thematically, the songs focus largely on the pathos of the common man. What is it about that subject matter you guys find compelling?
Melton: That wasn’t a conscious decision where we said, “Hey, this is the theme of our new album.” We still all have jobs and the stresses and obligations of that and trying to juggle it all. I think that brings life into perspective and gives you an understanding of what other people are going through. Those songs spoke to us. We just felt they were meaningful.
You guys grew up in and live in Haywood County, North Carolina, an area with a vibrant musical culture. How does that inform what you do?
This area, it’s rich in the heritage of music particularly associated with clogging and square-dancing, and because of that, it’s very rhythmic. I think we carry that tradition of rhythms in a lot of our music. We had a show earlier today, and we’re playing hoedown fiddle tunes just like we played them 20 years ago for a square dance in Haywood County. So that influence is with us all the time.
Your vocals on Five are really sublime — quite amazing in light of your accident. Could you talk about how you faced coming back from that experience?
It was a long, lengthy recovery, and it was pretty touch-and-go a few times. But on March 25 [in 2012], there was a major turning point for me and [two days later] I left the hospital. The guys were in the studio recording, and I came home and I couldn’t stand it. I called Caleb [Smith, the band’s guitarist-vocalist] and I said, “Come get me, I want to be a part of it.”
The doctors had told me that because my sinus cavities were all busted up and I lost my frontal cavities up in my forehead area — they had to cut the skull out and rebuild it — all the facial, tonal things that happen were different. They said, “You can possibly sing but you won’t have the same tones. You won’t have the same ability.” And I just needed to know, so we went to the studio.
That particular day they were tracking a song called “Wide River to Cross,” which was kind of fitting for the circumstances. I put on the headphones, sat down in front of the mic, and when I started singing, it came out. I was weak, but it was there. It sounded the same as it had. I really recorded faster than I should have [but] I just wanted to get back. I pushed myself hard.
Your recovery inspired you to write “Stacking Up the Rocks,” right?
My mom said, “Do you realize that the same day that your miracle occurred and you came out of your troubled times was the same day as the story in Joshua, Chapter 4, of stacking up the rocks?” She planted a seed in my mind. That story stuck with me.
And I kept dwelling on the significance of stacking up the stones and the importance of remembering the miracle where Joshua led the Israelites across the Jordan and God stopped the river from flowing. They had 12 men go back, stacking up stones, and they made a memorial at the side of the river so that all would remember the miracle that occurred in their lives.
With the similarities and the timing of that story and my accident, I knew I needed to do something with it. To me, [the song] is my stacking of the stones. It’s my memorial. It’s my remembrance of my life turning around and my miracle.
It must feel great being able to get out and sing after all that.
Well, it changes you. You realize that you never know what’s coming. Don’t waste a day. Make the best of it, and make the best of each show, and the best of each album, and the best of each song. You know, we’ve got a group of five levelheaded guys who are passionate about the same things and feel the same way about it, and that’s a special thing in itself. We’re blessed.