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Balsam Range

Papertown – 2012 (Mountain Home)

Reviewed by Donald Teplyske

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CDs by Balsam Range

Utilizing the ambitious tag-line of "where the music lives, breathes, and grows," Balsam Range have crafted a well-defined niche within the 'second tier' of bluegrass acts. They have become one of the most widely-played bluegrass groups, and their songs populate most significant bluegrass charts. They have been in consideration for IBMA recognition, and their interpretation of Trains I Missed captured Song of the Year in 2011.

With "Marching Home" (2007) and "Last Train to Kitty Hawk" (2008), Balsam Range provided evidence that they not only appreciate the traditions, but also demonstrated willingness to place their own stamp upon bluegrass. "Trains I Missed" (2010) solidified their approach of combining original songs with familiar gems balanced by under-heard songs of significant quality.

Balsam Range has a full-complement of lead singers, providing the listener with a selection of voices to appreciate. As well, having maintained a stable lineup over the course of four albums, the Haywood County, N.C. group has established an identifiable sound that distinguishes them from similarly positioned bands.

Most impressively, Buddy Melton and Caleb Smith are a dynamic vocal pairing who, often dramatically, swap leads on verses and choruses. Melton's tenor provides the high textures we appreciate in a vocally-adept bluegrass outfit while Smith's voice is more mournful and country smooth. At other times, a third voice courtesy of Darren Nicholson or Tim Surrettt is injected, and, as on Better Days, fine quartet singing is featured. Marc Pruett doesn't sing, but his five-string adds a distinctive fifth voice to the album.

"Papertown," named for the band members' home community of Canton, is well-balanced. Songs featuring first-person narrative reflection comprise the greatest portion of the album; for the most part, frivolousness is avoided and these elements should allow most listeners to make personal connections to the material.

Song highlights include an interpretation of Buddy and Julie Miller's Wide River to Cross, Any Old Road (Will Take You There), Born Ramblin' Man and Pruett's I Could Do You Some Good.