Come Helen Highwater

Bluegrass tag-team including Balsam Range at MU

By Joyell Nevins

Photo: Balsam Range will perform Saturday, Feb. 28 at Miami University, Hamilton

What is the mark of a truly great musician? Is it someone who plays for the joy of playing and the love of music – not for the money and glory?

If so, then audiences are in for a musical treat at the next performance of Miami University’s Regional Artist Series, featuring the bands Balsam Range and Helen Highwater.

“It’s a lifestyle, not an occupation,” said Helen Highwater mandolin player Mike Compton. “We don’t do songs just to get a hand, we do what we like.”

“It’s all about the attitude – you have to keep an attitude of having fun and it keeps the stress out,” said Darren Nicholson, who plays mandolin for Balsam Range. “We’re serious about the music, but it’s a fun ride.”

Nicholson and Compton come from different states and play in different bands, but both belong to groups with seasoned musicians who are willing to expand their boundaries. Nicholson is part of the five-member group Balsam Range, named for the mountain range where the Great Smoky Mountains meet the Blue Ridge Parkway.

“We’re taking a little of western North Carolina all over the country,” Nicholson said.

Nicholson pointed out that western North Carolina is a hotbed for bluegrass music, although he nodded his hat to the Midwest.

“There are bluegrass pockets across the country,” Nicholson said. “In the Midwest, there’s a crazy big bluegrass scene – and Ohio has a big bluegrass pocket, too.”

Nicholson and the other band members, Buddy Melton (fiddle), Tim Surrett (upright bass, dobro and main emcee), Caleb Smith (guitar) and Dr. Marc Pruett (banjo), all live in Heywood County, 20 minutes west of Asheville, North Carolina. They’re originally from different parts of the country and have had their own successful music careers.

Pruett played with Ricky Skaggs and Kentucky Thunder, Nicholson’s performed on the Grand Ole Opry, Surrett has a place in the Southern Gospel Hall of Fame and Smith is builder of Smith Custom Guitars (which has served clients such as Zac Brown). Yet they all eventually landed in Heywood County.

“We all ended up in the same area at the same time,” Nicholson said. “It was a timing thing – the timing just worked out.”

It’s been eight years since they started playing together as a group. Nicholson said they started out for fun, not to win any awards. Yet Balsam Range has garnered several awards from the International Bluegrass Music Association and their last album spent five consecutive months at the number one spot on the Bluegrass Unlimited National Bluegrass Survey chart.

But if you think bluegrass is limited to “Deliverance” and “Dueling Banjos,” Balsam Range will prove you wrong. They’re billed as “progressive bluegrass” and incorporate elements such as jazz, swing and blues into their music.

“We find the best songs and then pick whatever style fits that song,” Nicholson said. “We have people tell us ‘I never did like bluegrass, but I like you guys.’”

Their music is as varied as their fans – Balsam Range listeners range from “real young fans to hippies to old bluegrass fans,” Nicholson said. But whatever songs they play, Nicholson shared the group always wants to make great songs with meaning – music that is timeless.

“We play good music that strikes a chord with the people,” he said. “We want to make impacting songs.”

But you will hear some music that’s just plain fun – like “I Wish My Wife Would Love Me Like My Dog Does.” And Nicholson notes they always take requests.

“We’re a good band, but we’re even better live,” he said.

Havin’ laughs with the “Grumpy Bastards”

Helen Highwater, a.k.a. The Grumpy Bastards (the original name before they discovered not everyone got the joke), started on a fluke. Guitarist David Grier was set to play a one-time gig at LarryFest, a bluegrass camping festival on a maple syrup farm in the Wisconsin Kickapoo River Valley. However, the promoter wanted a full band for the job. So he and Compton pulled in fellow Nashville award-winning musicians fiddler Shad Cobb and bass player Missy Raines.

“After we worked the weekend, we said ‘well, this is fun,’” Compton said.

The four members still work with other musicians and projects (their resumes are a compilation of who’s who in the bluegrass world, including gigs with Dr. Ralph Stanley, Jim Hurst, Osborne Brothers, Willie Nelson, Steven Seagal and more), but are now developing their own “Helen Highwater” brand of music as well. They play country blues, bluegrass and old-time country, and incorporate other musical genres too. And they’re all learning to sing – each of them was primarily known only as an instrumentalist.

“I had no idea David sang, or that Chad wrote so many songs,” Compton said of their initial working together.

Raines may be the only female in the quartet, but she certainly holds her own – on and off the stage.

“She knows how to duke it out,” Compton said.

And the fledgeling group is still having fun figuring out how to work together. “There is plenty of laughing (in our rehearsals),” Compton said. “It says to ‘make a joyful noise,’ not beat yourself over the head with it.”

The band members know how to work hard, both as a group and in their solo careers, but they also agree it’s worth the effort.

“We have a good time,” Compton said, “This (music career) is not always easy, but it’s always rewarding.”

Balsam Range and Helen Highwater will perform at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 28 at Parrish Auditorium, 1601 University Boulevard at Miami University, Hamilton. Tickets range from $16-25 and can be purchased by mail, at the Cashiers Office on the Middletown Campus in Johnston Hall, or at miamioh.edu/boxoffice. For more information please, visit muartistseries.wordpress.com; balsamrange.com; or like “Helen Highwater” on Facebook.

Reach DCP freelance writer Joyell Nevins at JoyellNevins@DaytonCityPaper.com.

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Joyell believes in the power of the written word, a good cup of coffee, and sometimes, the need for a hug (please, no Tommy Boy references). Follow her on her blog “Small World, Big God” at swbgblog.wordpress.com or reach her at joyellnevins@daytoncitypaper.com

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