Family Bands: A Crucial Seed for Bluegrass
We spent last weekend camped at Newell Lodge, in a grove of majestic live oaks in the piney woods of South Georgia, where logging for pulp, wood chips, and lumber dominates the economy. This small festival grounds contains about 100 water/electric camping sites, six guest cottages, a dozen or so horses for trail rides, a small, cozy restaurant called Hold Your Horses, and a fine stage with wonderful sound. Perhaps 500 people showed up, mostly from Florida (South Georgia) and Georgia (North Florida). And on display this weekend were the two ends of part of the informal development system that keeps feeding fine musicians into bluegrass, country, and Americana music: the family band.
Earnest “Pop” Stoneman was first recorded on Edison Records in 1926. A year later, he was recorded at the historic Bristol Sessions in Bristol, Tennessee, by Ralph Peer. He served as an adviser to Peer in finding and selecting performers like the Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers for Peer to record. The Stonemans — a grammatical anomaly — went on to become legendary in bluegrass and country music. The youngest Stoneman, daughter Roni, was a key member of the cast of ground-breaking TV show HeeHaw, the most successful country music show ever on television. She continues to perform today, though in her late 70s she’s the last visible member of a family band with 90 years of performing.
The story of family bands in bluegrass music is ongoing. Many such bands develop from the close-knit fabric of church, homeschooling, and gospel music. Music provides a way for families to practice togetherness. When individuals practice music, they focus on their technique, their relationship to the instrument. The convergence of strings and voice provide learning challenges and rewards. Learning an instrument demands intense concentration and long-term dedication.
When a family band practices music, it can build togetherness and shut out the distractions of other, more worldly pursuits. Television, social media, and the more negative elements of the internet are left behind while they work to develop a sound and style. In gospel bands, the making of music in service to a larger goal is emphasized and developed. Meanwhile, the physical and emotional effect of the music itself cannot be overestimated.
Because we attend a number of smallish bluegrass festivals in the Southeast, much of the time in the Bible Belt, we get to see and hear local and regional family bands that have dedicated themselves to gospel bluegrass music. Most of them are more notable for earnest proclamation of their faith than for musical excellence. Generally, they are welcomed by the faithful with a positive and uplifting support, while, within the structure of the family band, superb individual musicians, who are destined to a larger stage, emerge. In some cases, they are also able to continue, successfully, the proclamation of their faith. However, more frequently, their musical contribution becomes more secular and less sectarian.
Three family bands come to mind right away, probably because we have recently seen their members perform: Cherryholmes, The Meyer Band, and Mountain Faith.
Cherryholmes formed in the Arizona desert after the untimely death of their sister Shelly. The family attended a bluegrass festival, were struck by the power of the music, and, in their grief and need for a recuperative focus, began making music together. Soon they became competent enough to go on the road, and the rest is history.
In 2005, Cherryholmes was nominated for both IBMA Emerging Artist and Entertainer of the Year — a first — and they took home the latter. During the ten years of their prominence, Cherryholmes broadened the audience for bluegrass, included a wider set of influences, and were nominated for five Grammy awards.
As the children grew, they began to follow their own interests, and the group disbanded in 2011. The four Cherryholmes children, however, continue to perform, each following their own interests. B.J. Cherryholmes plays fiddle for Dailey & Vincent, Molly for the reconstituted Mountain Heart, Skip plays guitar and sings with the rising traditional band Sideline, and banjo player Cia performs with her husband and is a session musician and singer in a broad range of Nashville efforts. Parents Jere and Sandy Leigh have quietly and happily receded into retirement. Perhaps this is the best possible outcome for a family band.
At Newell Lodge, one of the headliners was Mountain Faith. They were once an all-gospel band, and reached the semifinals of America’s Got Talent last year, raising the visibility of bluegrass music for new audiences.
We first saw Mountain Faith in 2011 at Renofest in Hartsville, South Carolina, where they placed third in the band contest. They’ve made enormous progress as musicians and have made a number of changes in personnel and content in the ensuing years. In order to meet the broadcast requirements of television, they had to downplay bluegrass and eliminate religious content from their performance. At their shows now, they tailor the amount of gospel content to the nature of the audience. The addition of David and Jimmy Meyer (from the Meyer family band) appear on various instruments and the energetic and talented Cory Piatt (himself a product of a family band) plays mandolin. John Meyer is emerging as a bluegrass star on banjo and guitar and as a singer with a number of bands, too.
What emerges from family bands is generations of fine, young musicians in almost any genre who continue traditions and forge into new directions. Clearly, most choose not to become professional musicians, but are active in jams or other music ventures near home. Some become so scarred by the rigors and disciplines of playing in a family band that they no longer have anything to do with music at all. But, on balance, family bands serve as a positive experience for those who participate and a joyful addition for those who consume music.