Review: Balsam Range – Mountain Overture

Balsam Range’s new album, Mountain Overture, recorded with the Atlanta Pops Orchestra Ensemble, only contains previously released tracks. Since it is a compilation of the group’s most popular songs from their previous six album releases, one may be tempted to give it a “greatest hits” or “best of “album title. I would prefer to label Mountain Overture as a concept album. Great bluegrass music enhanced by an orchestral background.

If you are unfamiliar with Balsam Range, the original members have played together for eleven years and each is a superb instrumentalist. Four members sing and all five contribute original music to the group.

Buddy Melton is on fiddle and winner of the “Male Vocalist of the Year” at the 2014 International Bluegrass Music Awards.

Marc Pruett is a Grammy-winning banjo picker who has played on 4 albums with Ricky Skaggs.

Tim Surrett, (bass and dobro) has performed with the gospel group The Kingsmen Quartet, winning multiple awards for “Gospel Musician of the Year.” He has performed with Tony Rice, Ralph Stanley, Brad Paisley and Vince Gill.

Caleb Smith, (guitar, vocals) won “Male Vocalist of the Year” and “Guitar Player of the Year” for the Power Grass music awards.

Darren Nicholson, (mandolin, vocals) has performed many times on the Grand Ole Opry stage and is a Grammy nominee and multiple IBMA award-winner.

It is no surprise that the meld of these individual talents has resulted in the group garnering many awards. BR’s 2013 Papertown earned the group an International Bluegrass Music Association Award (IBMA) for album of the year after having spent five months at number one on the Bluegrass National Bluegrass Survey Chart. The following year, BR was the 2014 IBMA “Entertainer of the Year” well as the 2014 IBMA “Vocal Group of the Year.”

If you’ve been a fan of BR, you may ask if I already have these “greatest” hits in my collection, why should I invest in Mountain Overture? Because, the Atlanta Pops have added a new dimension to each of these popular tracks from their earlier albums. The fusion of traditional bluegrass with orchestral pops arrives in perfect balance. Neither steals the limelight.

”Blue Mountain,” a sentimental love song from BR’s first album is one of their most requested songs. I listened to the 2007 release followed by the current version with the Pops Ensemble several times. Simply said, a beautiful song became more beautiful. The addition of the Ensemble’s strings made melancholy richer. The same can be said for the other slow, heart touching ballads including –“Eldorado Blue,” “I Hear the Mountains,” and from a “Georgia Battlefield.”

“Blue Mountain”

”Trains I Missed,” is a mid-tempo ballad that is a musical interpretation of Robert Frost’s Road Not Taken and the strings of the ensemble play a more prominent role but don’t overpower. It’s a song to which everyone can relate, and the meshing of BR and the Pops will draw you in. The other faster tempo songs such as “Jack Diamond,” “Last Train to Kitty Hawk,” and “Burning Georgia Down” are raised to new levels with the ensembles’ strings brass and percussion. The new arrangements bring an enhanced sense of vitality to these songs.

BR fans that long to hear Nicholson’s award-winning mandolin, Pruett’s Grammy-winning banjo, Melton’s amazing fiddling, will not be disappointed as the addition of the Pops hasn’t overshadowed their talents but rather highlighted their incredible musicianship. Likewise, a group that boasts two Male Vocalists of the Year awards and itself won the 2014 Vocal Group of the Year maintains the rich harmonies and beautiful vocal tones of the four members that share the vocals. The Pops support the vocals.

If you’ve been a fan of BR, Mountain Overture has made great bluegrass songs greater. Even if you have the previously released versions, the tracks on the new release are different, fresh and you will enjoy them anew. Upon repeated listening, you’ll be able to appreciate the interplay of BR and the ensemble. If you are a newcomer to BR, start with Mountain Overture and I suspect you’ll be seeking some of their earlier album releases to hear more of some of the best traditional bluegrass touring today.

If you can see BR live, you are in for a treat. As a veteran of hundreds of concerts, BR captivates an audience better than most. They share each song’s history and their musical bios between songs often infused with a heavy dose of humor. It’s a pleasure to watch truly exceptional instrumentalists with tender vocals and rich harmonies.

Mountain Home Music

Richard Kahn

Richard Kahn started enjoying the harmonies of country rock/folk bands like the Byrds, Buffalo Springfield and Poco in late 60’s and 70’s and evolved to the fiddles, mandolins, dobros and harmonies of bluegrass. Retired attorney living in South Carolina.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *