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Surprises continue for Cherryholmes

By John Lupton, November 2005

No matter how the final week of October played out, it was going to be a watershed in the lives of the Cherryholmes family, whose meteoric rise over the last few years has caught much of the bluegrass world by complete surprise.

On the heels of the September release of their first nationally distributed recording (self-titled on Skaggs Family) to enthusiastic reviews, they were at the annual International Bluegrass Music Association trade fair and awards shindig being held in Nashville for the first time.

More than that, they were up for two awards themselves, Emerging Artist (their second such nomination) and the big prize, Entertainer of the Year. Recounting the awards show at the venerable Ryman Auditorium, Jere (pronounced like "Jerry"), the patriarch of the clan says that when the Emerging Artist nod went to the Grascals, he turned to his wife Sandy.

"(I) basically said, 'We're done,' and she said, 'You mean, we can't even emerge this year?'"

It was, he admits, a bit of a letdown since it seemed to be their best shot at a win. A surprise nomination for the entertainer award, they considered their chances slim against the likes of Alison Krauss, Del McCoury, Doyle Lawson and Rhonda Vincent.

As the evening drew to a climax, if fell to Sam Bush to make the presentation.

"(Sam) opened the envelope and looked at the name and then kind of looked away and hesitated and looked back at it again like even he couldn't believe it, I guess. He read our name, and then we all kind of went into shock, and we didn't know whether it was real or it wasn't real. The moment was just incredible. The place erupted into some sort of hundred decibel applause, and people standing up and yelling, standing on the pews in the Ryman Auditorium and throwing junk, and we were just ecstatic."

Pausing for a moment to relive the moment, he laughs and continues, "We shuffled our way up to the stage to accept the award, and I was sitting there thinking, you know, I kind of had a speech prepared, but I kind of had forgotten what it all was by then. So, it was just a thrill. It was just a huge thrill."

The story of how Jere (bass), Sandy (mandolin) and their four youngest kids (Cia, 21, banjo; B.J., 17, fiddle,; Skip, 15, guitar; and Molly, 13, fiddle) rose to the top of the bluegrass world in 6 short years would make a pretty good movie, all the more remarkable in that, in the spring of 1999 they had never even experienced the music.

And in fact, the story begins in Los Angeles, but far from Hollywood.

"I tell you, it's basically a miracle," says Jere, "We didn't grow up on grandma's knee, watching grandpa play the fiddle."

Los Angeles native Jere was working as a carpenter for the city school system, living in a tough, Hispanic section of southeast L.A. with Sandy and their brood of six, whom they were home schooling.

When oldest daughter Shelly died suddenly in early 1999 of a childhood heart ailment just short of her 21st birthday, the bereaved family sought to raise their spirits with a visit to a nearby bluegrass festival featuring pioneers Jim and Jesse McReynolds as headliners.

The music fascinated and spoke to all of them, and before long, playing and singing became a shared family experience. It wasn't easy to find the music in the neighborhood though.

"We didn't have bluegrass in our family. And we didn't have a reference point for it...we really had to go out there to try and find it. We had to send away for most of it because they didn't even carry it in the record stores, and nobody even knew what it was...We had no intentions of becoming a performing band. We just enjoyed singing together and learning how to play together and making music."

Moreover, he says, they were starting literally from scratch. "Nobody in the family has had formal lessons. All of it was learned through listening and playing."

As they immersed themselves more and more into learning how to play - and perform - they began picking up occasional gigs that provided the opportunity to hone their arrangements and stage presence, including a stint covering several weeks at an apple orchard in the region.

As the time spent on stage continued to grow, it became clear that push was coming to shove.

"In (late 2001/early 2002), Sandy and I came to the conclusion that...we had to pursue the music thing full-time...we were gonna have to make the break from L.A. and go out on the road, or we were gonna have to decide not to and just basically let our kids grow up and go out and do whatever a normal adult life leads them to - go to college, get married, get a job and start a career and that kind of stuff. Because otherwise, it just wouldn't be fair."

"I couldn't ask my daughter Cia, who is now 21, to just hang around in this little family band that was playing, you know, 15 or 20 occasions during the year and make a commitment to that. I'd have to let her go and go off to college or whatever she was gonna do. So we sat down and talked to the kids very seriously about it, 'What do you guys want to do? Because if you want to, I'll make a commitment to it', and they all said, 'Yeah, let's go for it.'"

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