Aeonic, which the dictionary defines as “lasting for an immeasurably or indefinitely long period of time,” seems a fitting album title for a band that has spent more than a decade building one of the most successful careers in bluegrass music.
Balsam Range took top honors at September’s 2018 International Bluegrass Music Association Awards, winning entertainer of the year, male vocalist and bass player, and they’re building on that momentum with the Friday release of Aeonic on Mountain Home Music Co., an imprint under their longtime home, Arden, North Carolina-based Crossroads Label Group.
“It’s symbolic to me,” vocalist Buddy Melton says of the title of the band’s seventh studio album. “I’m proud of the fact that I still sing with the same five guys after a decade of playing together — no changes, continually pushing, trying new things and moving forward. We wanted something symbolic, unique and creative and ‘aeonic’ is a term that means those things. It means continuing, enduring and lasting.”
Formed in 2007 in their home state of North Carolina, Balsam Range is Melton on fiddle/lead and tenor vocals,Tim Surrett on bass/dobro/baritone and lead vocals, Dr. Marc Pruett on banjo, Caleb Smith on guitar/lead and baritone vocals and Darren Nicholson on mandolin/octave mandolin and lead vocals, baritone and low tenor vocals.
The band, which has placed four sets in the top five of Billboard‘s Bluegrass Albums chart, got their name from the Great Balsam Range, a mountain range that surrounds their home county. “We thought it was a little pretentious to have ‘great’ in there, so we just stripped that off of it and called us Balsam Range,” Melton says.
The band’s IBMA Awards victories in September brings its total count to 13, including entertainer and vocal group of the year in 2014. “We try to have our own sound and our songs have originality,” Melton says of what fuels the band’s success. “Showing up and being reliable and being good guys, none of that ever hurts either,” he adds with a chuckle.
Diversifying has also played a role in the band’s growth. They’ve performed with the Atlanta Pops Orchestra Ensemble and they host their own annual three-day event: the Balsam Range Art of Music Festival in Lake Junaluska, N.C., held the weekend after Thanksgiving. “We did a concert series for years, and we decided to bite off a little bigger piece and try to put on a two- or three- day festival. Last year was our third event and it’s grown every year. We call it The Art of Music Festival because it encompasses more than just bluegrass. We’ve had the orchestra there and we’ve had some blues and jazz groups. We’ve had country groups, a lot of bluegrass as well, but there is a little bit of everything and, like the blend of orchestra, and bluegrass. They all go well together.”
Balsam Range’s orchestral collaborations began when the Zac Brown Band’s John Driskell Hopkins enlisted them to play on one of his projects, and then Irish producer Brian Byrne recruited them to play on 2017’s Goldenhair, an album of music set to James Joyce’s words. “He had a song or two that he wanted a bluegrass band and he called us,” says Melton. “It was quite an honor to be on it.”
Balsam Range has continued to play periodically with the Atlanta Pops. “We really enjoyed working on those other pieces, so we started having a composer from the Atlanta Pops writing music to fit our arrangements,” Melton says. “[Playing with them] is a blast. It’s just a big full sound. Adding the orchestra to it just brings new emotions, new feelings and new dynamics to the songs. I hope we can do more and more of that. We never want to leave what we do as a five-piece, but it’s really fun to challenge yourself and open your mind to other music.”
What Balsam Range does best is on full display with Aeonic, and the band gives fans an early listen with a Billboard exclusive on “The Rambler” below. “I’m a fan of lyrics and Adam has a wonderful way of painting this beautiful picture with his lyrics, and still leaves the listener the opportunity to kind of color it,” Melton says of singer/songwriter Adam Wright. “He has that brilliant way of telling a story, but leaving it to where it could be interpreted by everybody or anybody in their own way, so I’m a big fan of his writing.”
In recording Aeonic, Melton says they wanted to push boundaries but not go to far and alienate any fans. “We’re taking with us our traditions, but also trying new things. We always are incorporating new styles and artistically keep an open mind. There are brand new songs and a few cover songs that are interpreted a little differently on this album. It’s a fun process exploring artistically what we can do collectively.”
Among the covers is the Beatles’ “If I Needed Someone.” “Tim was always a fan of that and mentioned [trying] it several times over the past few years,” Melton says. “He loved the harmonies and the melody structure of it. So we decided to tackle it and it turned into a really fun song on this project.”
The band has already released three songs from the new album — “The Girl Who Invented the Wheel,” “Hobo Blues,” and “Get Me Gone”—and Melton is anxious for fans to hear the entire project. “Everybody interprets songs differently and I think it’s important to have something for everybody on a project to make it well-rounded. Aeonic has that,” he says. “It has some quirky, fun songs. It has some meaningful songs about struggles, and songs that make you feel happy and forget about the struggles. It has a little bit of everything.”