Bluegrass music is an interesting spot in 2021. Perhaps for the first time since the 1990s, there are more well established “known entities” in the genre than ever. The number of highly technically proficient bands that emerged in the late 1990s and early 2000s who are still around today—your Quicksilvers, your Grascals, your Blue Highways, etc.—is pretty high considering how much the paradigm has shifted for the genre in the 21st century.
The problem that bands like that face is that they can’t stay the band they were in 1998 or 2002 forever. As an ensemble, you can’t stay relevant to an audience that is now much younger and diverse—with peers who are also much younger—by pretending that bluegrass music is the same now as it was in the pre-O’ Brother, Where Art Thou? days. Bands combat this problem by rotating personnel with some frequency to bring in new blood, as Greg Cahill does with Special Consensus, or by integrating elements of progressive folk, like Steep Canyon Rangers have done quite masterfully in their most recent offerings.
(Or you can go about it by adding drums for some reason to ruin your band’s entire appeal. I’m not gonna name names here because I don’t want to upset the current lineup of Lonesome River Band.)
But there is that rare band that can keep up with the times all while keeping its sound consistent—some might say irreverent—over two decades, with minimal personnel changes, all while producing relevant songs with themes that connect to a modern audience. If you haven’t figured out who I’m referring to by the title of this review, they take their name from a type of Fir tree native to North Carolina.
Moxie and Mettle, Balsam Range’s most recent full-length project, is something of a return to form for the band. Two of their recent full-length efforts, 2019’s The Gospel Collection and 2018’s Mountain Overture with the Atlanta Pops Orchestra, were a little outside of their normal mould, but definitely not foreign territory. Gospel has long been a core component of Balsam Range’s offerings, and the band has collaborated with an orchestra for its Holiday EP It’s Christmas Time. (Both projects are fantastic efforts and with checking out.)
Their most recent “normal” album was 2019’s Aeonic, a project I deeply enjoyed. True to form, Moxie and Mettle takes the elements that worked from Aeonic—and from their entire discography—and runs with it.
The first single released from their new record, “The Richest Man,” has all the makings of a catchy Sirius XM Bluegrass Junction hit. Buddy Melton remains one of the most charismatic bluegrass vocalists working today, and this cut is a great demonstration of that undeniable fact. Buddy Melton’s voice is transcendent on all tracks, but this one is definitely his strongest. “Richest Man” is a driving banjo-led number with a great use of fiddle backing—credit again to Buddy Melton—which, admittedly, describes a lot of great bluegrass cuts from Moxie and Mettle. However, Balsam Range has fun with their formula by throwing in a section of three-quarter time to form an engaging bridge in the middle of the song.
Balsam Range is obviously having a lot of fun in Moxie and Mettle. “Rooster Rock,” a swing-inspired number full of hilarious instrumental and lyrical moments, serves as a great showcase for longtime Balsam Range mandolinist Darren Nicholson, who shows off pickin’ chops that suggest he’d feel right at home in a band with Benny Goodman or Duke Ellington. That’s not to suggest that any of the other guys are slouches on this cut—they all turn up the swing dial to 11 without breaking a sweat.
Caleb Smith, guitarist and guitar-maker, takes a lot of lead vocals on Moxie and Mettle. His guitar playing continues to be the backbone of the group, occasionally taking center stage on cuts like “Until I See You Again” and “Franklin County.” Smith uses some subtly subversive chord voicings and passing chords that strike an excellent balance: they’re just different enough to be noticeable and enhance each song, but not so evident that they overpower what’s going on with each song harmonically. It’s little moments like that which help Balsam Range stand out and keep listeners engaged through each and every track.
Moxie and Mettle even gives its bassist, the incomparable Tim Surrett, time to shine. With arco parts placed in several tracks, Balsam Range strategically deploys its weapon of bass destruction to add an additional level of harmonic depth—with especially effective results on the final cut, “Grit and Grace.” That song is my second favorite on the whole record, right behind “Highway Side,” the opening cut of Moxie and Mettle. Marc Pruett’s strong banjo playing opens the album up in strong fashion, and the energy and continues to build from there.
Balsam Range is a band that keeps up with the times not by pushing the game forward, but by pushing their game forward. They’re not reinventing the bluegrass wheel, but their constant refinements of their personal bluegrass mission statement, in this reviewer’s opinion, are just as impressive.
Balsam Range’s Moxie and Mettle is out September 24th and is available for pre-order now.