(Skaggs Family, 2005)

Cherryholmes, a family bluegrass band consisting of six Cherryholmeses (Jere and Sandy Lee, and their two daughters and two sons), came as if out of nowhere -- in this instance, the Los Angeles area, nobody's idea of bluegrass heaven -- to storm the gates of bluegrass. Ordinarily, the genre's leading lights are subject first to a long apprenticeship under various of the acknowledged masters before they go off on their own with their own bands, their own recordings and their own signature sounds. The Cherryholmeses, on the other hand, barely knew anyone who even knew what bluegrass is.

With some difficulty they found recordings of it and from them taught themselves how to play. Keep in mind that bluegrass is not an easy genre for even otherwise capable musicians to master, and this was as recent ago as the latter 1990s. But by 2005, with this, their first CD that was not self-issued, they had won the International Bluegrass Music Association's Entertainer of the Year award over some remarkably stiff competition, namely the likes of Del McCoury, Alison Krauss, Doyle Lawson and Rhonda Vincent. If you know anything about bluegrass, you'll recognize all of these names as denoting bluegrass royalty. Given that, warm words for the band and this CD (both of which have received rapturous praise all around) seem all but redundant.

Even so, I step forward to affirm, having come to it a little later than other reviewers, that Cherryholmes lives up to its notices. The Cherryholmeses' sound isn't pop-flavored Alison Krauss-style post-bluegrass but an early 21st-century tradition-based approach, a distinctly modern reworking of the distinctive bluegrass sound. Cherryholmes is usually described (as I just did) as a "traditional" group, but the only purely traditional bluegrass band I've heard in the past five or 10 years is the Earl Brothers, who sound as if recently stepped out of a time machine boarded in 1946. This isn't that kind of traditional -- for one thing, the sound is dense, richly textured and almost orchestral, which old-school bluegrass is very much not -- but it retains enough of a rootedness to appeal to the bluegrass veteran as well as to the neophyte who is there not for the historical ambiance but for the finely realized performance.

In other words, the Cherryholmeses are both traditional and untraditional in the Rhonda Vincent and the Rage sense. In fact, the first cut, "How Long," written and sung by Cia Leigh Cherryholmes, is an almost uncanny Vincent impersonation. Though it's a good song and a nice job over all, its derivative nature perhaps makes it less than the most judicious choice for opener. A little later, the Jere/Sandy Lee/Cia Leigh-penned "Red Satin Dress," a murder ballad done smartly with old-timey nuances, will remind the bluegrass-literate listener, possibly a little too much for comfort, of the Stanley Brothers chestnut "Girl Behind the Bar." These are not, however, particularly major criticisms. Everybody comes from somewhere, after all, and bluegrass musicians who don't know and show their immersion in the genre's history tend to end up, in fairly short order, in rock bands.

What matters, of course, is how brilliantly this (in both senses of the word) attractive family comes to the task at hand: making a joyous, meaningful music out of found and invented materials. The Cherryholmeses write most of their material (including the brilliant Celtic-flavored instrumental medley "Shelly in the Heather/Linda's Reel"), and their taste in covers -- from Hazel Dickens's militant "Workin' Girl Blues" to the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band's heartbreaking "Workin' Man (Nowhere to Go)" -- is flawless. Each family member is almost ridiculously talented in every department, as instrumentalist, vocalist, harmony singer or composer. It's almost scary to think where, this good this early, Cherryholmes goes from here.

by Jerome Clark
31 December 2005

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