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Balsam Range

Mountain Voodoo – 2016 (Mountain Home)

Reviewed by Fred Frawley

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CDs by Balsam Range

Balsam Range has been at the heart of mainstream bluegrass music since its debut in 2007. "Mountain Voodoo" is an ambitious, and successful, summation of the first decade.

Vocal harmonies provide the core of Balsam Range's music. It's mountain music, to be sure, with lots of vocal range. Lead singer Buddy Melton controls his tenor range with power and effect, and is joined, in varying degrees by mandolinist Darren Nicholson, bassist Tim Surrett and guitarist Caleb Smith.

Balsam Range has an ear for good tunes as well, benefitting here, as on earlier releases, from a collaboration with estimable songwriter Milan Miller, who contributed four songs. Miller has a clear vision and a knack for evoking imagery though words. The awkwardly-titled, but nonetheless evocative, "Something 'Bout That Suitcase" leads off the collection; it's a road song about discerning the humanity of people encountered in a travelling band.

Nicholson's mandolin and Marc Pruett's banjo set the table on "Mountain Voodoo," but the harmonies seal the deal as on "Blue Collar Dreams." Other selections, particularly the more languid tunes, such as "I Hear The Mountains" and "El Dorado Blue," are sourced through Melton's fiddle lines, which then flow into the steel-strong vocals.

"Voodoo Doll" starts as a simple country opprobrium of a love lost ("You must have a voodoo doll of me"), but then drops into a bluegrass jam, featuring Balsam Range's players in equal measure. Pruett's rolling banjo line cements the song. It's a departure for Balsam Range, but works well.

Melton's vocal skills are celebrated, and for good reason. He's a tenor, but has a lower element, too, that enriches his delivery. Smith, who also takes some vocal turns, it more of a traditional bluegrass tenor, meeting his traditional roots at the upper end of the range.

"Mountain Voodoo" has admirable pacing; nothing is forced, and the songs just roll through, regardless of tempo. To be sure, Balsam Range fronts a traditional bluegrass sound, but "Mountain Voodoo" displays depth and texture not found in contemporary straight-ahead bluegrass groups. They wear it well, and "Mountain Voodoo" is a fine snapshot of Balsam Range today.