Cherryholmes – Next of kin
“And what better way to interact with one another and to be close than to play music?”
Jere Cherryholmes is a character. His grizzled visage suggests a Klondike prospector or, perhaps, a Civil War general, even as his earrings, tattoos, and shaved head drag one’s attention back to the eccentricities of the present century. One image that does not come immediately to mind, however, is that of the patriarch of a high-profile bluegrass family band. Which, as it happens, is the one image Cherryholmes has cultivated with considerable deliberation and forethought.
Jere and his wife, Sandy, were both musical, playing in church and dabbling in Celtic music. But the story goes that they got their first real taste of bluegrass when they took their four young children — Cia, B.J., Skip, and Molly — to a festival following their oldest daughter’s death in the spring of 1999. They were particularly inspired by bluegrass legends Jim & Jesse McReynolds, and soon made a rather spontaneous decision to form their own band.
According to Jere, their reasons, at the outset, were more therapeutic than musical. “We did it to pull the family closer together,” he explains. “And what better way to interact with one another and to be close than to play music?”
Though they initially had no real intention of performing publicly, they quickly progressed from parking-lot jam sessions to the stage. Jere eventually made the decision to leave his job as a carpenter for the Los Angeles County school system and concentrate instead on the task of constructing a bluegrass band.
Four years later, they relocated from what Jere jokingly calls “the Mecca of bluegrass, southeast Los Angeles” to middle Tennessee. Two years after that, sporting a self-titled release on Skaggs Family Records, they were named Entertainer of the Year at the 2005 IBMA bluegrass awards show. Cherryholmes II: Black And White, their second disc for Skaggs Family (and fifth overall), was released June 12.
The manufacturing of image is a creative process as old as the country music industry itself. Louis M. Jones pasted on a handlebar mustache and became “Grandpa” at age 22. The Coon Creek Girls were not from Coon Creek, and none of them were really named Daisy, Violet or Black Eyed Susie. Whitey Ford was not the actual Duke of Paducah. Ranger Doug is not an honest-to-goodness ranger.
In her book Staging Tradition, folklorist Michael Ann Williams speaks of “walking the tightrope of authenticity.” Taking music that is ostensibly private and traditional and presenting it in a format that is both public and contemporary invariably leads to questions of genuineness. “What is the alternative to the theatrical presentation of tradition?” Williams asks. “An equally old, and equally problematic, model does exist: the zoological model. There is a certain dignity to being on stage not conferred on the inmates of zoos.”
Naturally, Jere also rejects the zoological model. “All of our kids deserve to have a life, too,” he says. “I don’t want to put them in a cage or something. I joke about it all the time, you know, making them stay single and things like that. But I would really like all of them to be happy.”
Still, he maintains that his children find affirmation in the band. “They’ve got a vested interest in what we’re doing,” he continues. “My kids are very, very dedicated to what we’re doing, because they are reaping the benefits personally, as well as the band. All of them are getting validation personally in the industry and getting some recognition for their accomplishments, and they all thrive on that.”
Of course, all family bands face a single significant problem: The kids grow up. It may be possible to survive that, but only if the family structure itself does not account for the band’s central appeal. “We want to think of ourselves more as a band that happens to be a family than a family band,” Jere explains. They began addressing that distinction with their recent decision to stop billing themselves as the Cherryholmes Family Band, opting instead to be, simply, Cherryholmes.
Other bluegrass family acts have met a variety of fates. The Stonemans fared pretty well, but the McClains mainly parted ways when they reached adulthood. Only half of the current Stevens Family Band are actually members of the Stevens family. And though the Lewis Family still makes the festival circuit, it should probably be noted that Little Roy never really did grow up.
It’s hard to tell what will happen for Cherryholmes. Certainly it is difficult to imagine the kids as stepdancing 30-year-olds, the girls in high-collared dresses and lace-up boots, the boys decked out in identical hats and matching sequined jackets. Still, even as the group’s genesis was an act of purposeful creation, they’ve also shown a willingness to reinvent themselves along the way. (Note the covers of their first two independently released albums: On 2001’s Still A Little Rough Around The Edges, the family is posed like pioneers around a campfire, while on 2002’s Dressed For Success, they’re piled into a Beverly Hillbillies-style jalopy.)
If the band did not start eight years ago with a clear vision of their future, they are certainly more forward-looking at this stage in their career. Jere notes that a more intense level of competition comes with increased popularity, and he recognizes the need for patience as they look for openings and opportunities within the industry. Still, their sights are set high.
“Everybody has in their mind that they would like to push the band up even out of — not out of bluegrass, but to reach a broader audience,” Jere says. “More like Alison Krauss does. Not play the same music that she plays, but to play music that has a broader appeal with the elements of traditional bluegrass in it.”
He concedes that their career arc potentially makes them the target of some criticism, as some folks occasionally accuse them of rising too fast, and too far. “Being a young band, sometimes people have a tendency to feel like you are overstepping,” he says. “A lot of times you have to have the [drive] to push ahead where some people would think you’re going farther than you should go. I don’t know how to explain it exactly, but I know it must be a real shocker for some people to see a band like ours come along and practically take over.”