Cherryholmes – A family’s flying leap into bluegrass
Until this August, a bluegrass band fledgling enough to be nominated for the IBMA’s “Emerging Artist of the Year” award had never simultaneously been nominated for “Entertainer of the Year” — deemed ready, already, to compete head-on against veteran top-line acts such as Alison Krauss, Doyle Lawson, Del McCoury and Rhonda Vincent. Cherryholmes, a rambunctious, colorful, attention-riveting family sextet barely known three years ago, pulled off just that feat. It was a month before the first of their four albums not to be self-released was in stores.
The Cherryholmes family band’s fast-rising recognition as entertainers is no shock to anyone who’s seen their live shows, and they do nearly 300 of those a year. In a season-ending “Bluegrass at the Ryman” performance at Nashville in late July, for example, they were certainly the least-known act in a lineup featuring acoustic Patty Loveless as headliner, and the Grascals. But it was Cherryholmes that brought everyone to their feet, with tumultuous ovation after ovation.
If the description “family band” brings to your mind cute novelty acts saluted sweetly just for being there, this family band is not one of those. The Cherryholmeses — father and mother Jere and Sandy Lee, with daughters Cia and Molly Kate and sons B.J. and Skip — are serious, and they simply tear up a stage. Their striking vocal strengths are shown off in duos and trios and sudden sextets that group in the course of songs which might easily have started out as stomping post-Celtic dances — and all that with an aggressive instrumental attack built on traditional hard-driving bluegrass.
Younger daughter Molly Kate, 13, and elder son B.J., 16, break into ultra-tight twin fiddle couplings that have been getting instrumental attention; you may have seen their appearance on Rhonda Vincent’s Ragin’ Live DVD. Elder daughter Cia, 21, a stunner with a full, throaty, plaintive alto that’s earned a nomination for IBMA female vocalist of the year, handles a driving banjo with the prowess to have won trad-bluegrass’s SPBGMA 2005 Banjo Player of the Year prize. Younger son Skip, 15, is emerging as a guitarist with a sense of steady tempo that no doubt would have pleased the late Jimmy Martin (an early advocate who contributed notes to their 2003 self-made, Darrin Vincent-produced CD Bluegrass Vagabonds).
Fronting the band are the imposing, tattooed and bearded “Dad” Jere (simply pronounced “Jerry”) as bassist and engaging MC/monologist, and “Mom” Sandy as vocalist and chopping mandolist whose constantly moving and jumping feet often seem to generate the power of the high-energy ensemble.
Their new, self-titled Skaggs Family album offers traditional tunes from Bill Monroe and the Louvin Brothers, more recent “workin’ folks” songs penned by Hazel Dickens and the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, and a wide variety of originals — love songs, church songs, screaming instrumentals, even a new murder ballad — penned by members of the family. Virtually all of the Cherryholmes write by this point; Molly Kate set a BMI age record when she became a published and recorded writer at age 10.
For their interest in combining showmanship and chops, comparisons might be made to the unpredictable and feisty stage act of the Stoneman Family of the 1960s, and perhaps to the traditional bluegrass revivalist Johnson Mountain Boys of the ’80s — one model for the Cherryholmes attack. Ben Isaacs (of family band the Isaacs) was entrusted with capturing that impact on disc, the challenge being to do so absent their live showmanship; his own extensive experience in the dynamics of a family band’s workings (like Darrin Vincent’s) made him a natural fit.
“We really wanted to relate to that traditional eastern style,” Sandy Lee stresses. “We love it — and its ‘punch you in the face’ approach — because we’re all very high-strung people ourselves, which comes out in the music!” She calls the harder-driving school of bluegrass “eastern” because the family started out in the Los Angeles area; as the band formed, they moved on to Arizona. They found that more updated and laid-back bluegrass styles seemed to be prevalent out there.
“Our household definition of ‘contemporary,'” Sandy Lee laughs, “is that more modern sound where they might have a lot of fast, fancy mandolin playing — but it’s smooth. It doesn’t drive. We were looking for music that made you feel like you were getting in a brawl — Flatt & Scruggs and Bill Monroe!”
It was probably inevitable that after years of a touring schedule so hectic that they can truly be said to have lived on the family tour bus (as the Bluegrass Vagabonds title suggested), last year Cherryholmes relocated to Middle Tennessee, not far from Nashville. But for all the speed with which their recognition has come since, they didn’t find instant acceptance.
“When we moved to Tennessee,” Sandy Lee recalled, “we were basically told that we had three strikes against us. One — we were from the west, and there’s not been a lot going on in bluegrass coming out of there. Second — we had women, so it would be expected that we’d have more of a ‘pinkgrass’ sound, since women, while they can get around with their instruments, don’t do it like the men do. And the third strike — we were a family band, which probably meant maybe one or two people in the band could play, but the rest really couldn’t.”
The focus on high-energy bluegrass took care of the “western” problem. The women in the band, while influenced by the hard-charging likes of Rhonda and Hazel, mainly patterned themselves after male predecessors, which ended the “pinkgrass” issue. And the family has determinedly, almost obsessively focused on developing vocal and instrumental chops of the first level, which answered the rest of it.