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Balsam Range

Mountain Overture – 2018 (Mountain Home)

Reviewed by John Lupton

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CDs by Balsam Range

Since forming a little more than a decade ago, North Carolina-based Balsam Range (Buddy Melton, fiddle; Darren Nicholson, mandolin; Tim Surrett, bass; Marc Pruett, banjo; and Caleb Smith, guitar) have established themselves over the course of six critically applauded albums (not counting a Christmas album, though that was well done too) as one of the more dynamic and accomplished bands on the modern bluegrass scene, with a basket full of IBMA awards to back that claim up.

For this latest adventure, they dipped into their list of "A" material from those albums and, rather than repackage them as a standard "greatest hits" disc, they invited the Atlanta Pops Orchestra Ensemble to help record new versions in a "mixed genre" setting. (Not an entirely new concept - banjo player Tim Lake produced a similar album almost 20 years ago with, coincidentally, another Atlanta classical ensemble, the Atlanta-Emory Orchestra).

One of the pitfalls of trying to combine two widely differing styles of music - like bluegrass and classical - is the risk that either one will overpower the other or that they will dull each other around the edges, with a result that tends toward blandness. It's exactly that edge that draws a great many bluegrass fans into the music, the tension between vocals and instruments, and having a string section on hand to soften things up may not sit well with the bluegrass purists. There are a couple of instances where the originals seem to have been slowed down a bit to a more symphonic tempo, but on the whole they've all managed to work and play well together, and the sequence on the last half of the disc of "Jack Diamond," "Matthew" (an underappreciated gem from the John Denver catalog) and "Last Train To Kitty Hawk" is actually very appealing.

Where this all really shines, though, is in the singing. With four quality lead singers in the band (Pruett is the lone non-singer), Balsam Range is one of the premier vocal bands in the business, and they prove convincingly here that it doesn't matter who or what their backup is. The purists on either side of this musical "mashup" may not be convinced, but it's a project that worked out pretty well.