Rabbit in a blog

Oh, the pleasures of growing up in the country…thanks to my mom and dad.  I love it and wouldn’t trade it for anything.  I am turning 27 years old this week; but being born in 1983, I was sure raised differently than most people my age living in this era.  We played mountain music or country music in our house as far back as I can remember, and that was our main form of entertainment when I was a child.  My dad took me hunting and fishing a lot, and my mom got me into playing baseball, but I was an adolescent before I ever saw a video game.  That’s really crazy to think about considering the times! 
I received an email this week from a dear friend of mine at a local newspaper.  She’d found a video and news clipping of one my first public performances – a talent show at Camp Lab Elementary school where I attended in Cullowhee, NC.  As a kindergartener, I sang Rabbit in a Log. My dad and uncle accompanied me on fiddle, and guitar, and I had a plastic guitar and played along as well.  Other kids were performing New Kids on the Block and MC Hammer songs, and me ….well it was Bill Monroe.  My first grade year, there I was singing Old Rattler by Grandpa Jones.  It really shows my WNC heritage. 
Sounds of mountain music and the Grand Ole Opry were prevalent every night in our household, whether listening or playing ourselves. We watched very little television. My parents never pushed this on me. I just loved it and wanted to play and learn; and I’m glad for it. I had a hobby that turned into a profession, and music is a huge part of my life today. 

I wish more youth today were into something like that instead always relying on technology for mental nourishment or entertainment.  They spend so much time on Guitar Hero, they could actually learn to play a real instrument in the same amount of time. A lot of our old songs and culture are quickly fading and I pride myself as one of the only younger folks I know so interested in this music. It wouldn’t trade my time or have spent it any other way.  I guess I am a true mountain boy and that’s OK.  Thanks Mom and Dad.

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Putting limitations on art? …Its indefinable!

As a new blogger let’s just get this out of the way: Everyone has blogged about it, so here’s my opinion.  The subject is …What is Bluegrass Music?  And why does this subject keep coming up?  

I love all forms of music.  And playing many forms of music best represents who I am and what I want to be as an artist.  I like old music, new music …I don’t care as long as it’s good music.  I do play a lot of Bluegrass and one thing I notice is that generally bluegrass people are very territorial with their music.  We all like to take ownership of it.  We love it.   But if we aren’t careful we’ll stifle it and keep it from growing and potentially being heard by the masses. 

Bluegrass is like ice cream…there are so many flavors. Maybe not all bluegrass is for you, but I truly think the general public would find if exposed to it they would like some form of it. They’d find their flavor.  I get tired of people trying to define Bluegrass Music. First of all, you can’t put limitations on art. Everyone has their own opinion, and so few people care anyway.  We should be trying to make good music to draw people in, instead of making it a sub-culture, pushing good musical ideas and people away.  I love all forms of music and I never try to categorize it.  Music is either good or bad.   

Bluegrass is a form of Country Music. And by that I mean Country, not in style, but country, as in where it came from…the hills. It’s derived from Scotch-Irish, Mountain Music with Gospel and Blues influence.  I am a huge Bill Monroe fan and love him as an artist, creator, and musical pioneer.  To put some perspective on his American music footprint, he has been inducted into the Rock and Roll, Country, and Bluegrass Halls of Fame.  If Bill had not been experimenting with music in 1946, Bluegrass as we know it wouldn’t even exist.  Flatt and Scruggs never called their music Bluegrass …they called it “Country Music” or “Folk Music in overdrive”. 

If you really look at the history of it, “Bluegrass band” and “instrumentation” include: duets, trios, quartet, quintets …on to orchestral configurations.  Fiddles, banjos, mandolins, basses, guitars, drums, resophonic guitars, harmonicas, washboards, spoons, bones, electric basses, electric guitars, pianos, jugs, saws, violas, cellos …the list could go on for days.  Ironically, this isn’t what it’s revolutionized into today, but from the beginning it was a hodge-podge of experimentation.  Strictly American Music. 

Flatt and Scruggs, Jimmy Martin, Bill Monroe, The Osborne Bros, and Jimmy Jesse …the founders all used the instrumentation just named in the beginning.  Oddly enough, as years have passed, for some reason people have tried to put a choke hold on this music making it what they want; limiting all these things.  I see it a lot in people who aren’t from the regions it was created in, and people who don’t play but feel so passionately about the music they write about it or form an association of the “Here’s my 2 cents worth in something…anything!  Let me be involved.”   I see this hurting our industry and all the veterans of this music I have ever talked to agree completely.  Let it just be music and let it grow.  That way maybe someday everyone can get a taste of Bluegrass.  Then we can keep enjoying it for years to come.

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The World’s Loudest Instrument: The Story of Silverware in Bluegrass

Music is so powerful that it often inspires non-musical people to pat their feet or clap their hands to the rhythm, so you can’t deny it’s magnetism. My entire life I have also observed it’s power to the point where people can’t even resist the urge to rattle two spoons together. And with that, let me introduce you to the unique musician, and loudest instrument in the world …an eating utensil. Yes, I’m referring to SPOON PLAYERS AND THEIR SPOONS.

Not a pre-war banjo, guitar or mandolin worth thousands of dollars, but someone clinging two spoons together playing rhythm is by far the loudest thing in a jam. This is a fun and enjoyable subject for me. Lots of musicians I know hate to see a spoon player coming…but not me. I love someone who is overtaken by the urge to be a part of something musical. Where the challenge comes in is trying to make sure it’s appropriate and not overbearing; because let’s face it …those two little pieces of metal are quite loud.

My dear friend Steve Sutton and I were at the M.A.C.C. festival in Columbus, Ohio many years ago and we passed an impromptu jam as we were leaving the park. Of all the incredible instruments in the jam, the thing we heard first, last and most was a tiny little man flogging the spoons. He got some dirty looks but he was persistent. It’s incredible to see some one having such a good time and wanting to be part of the music. That’s great…that’s what it’s about, and I love music like that too!

On the flip side, Jenny and I were at a concert once as spectators. My friend Rhonda Vincent got us some passes for the festival, so in the crowd we sat trying to enjoy the show while a man in the audience whipped out his cutlery and started going to town. It was pretty annoying for a quieter concert setting…and loud …have I mentioned that? Kentucky Borderline…CLANK CLANKY CLANK… And to make matters worse, his inebriated state did not afford him the ability to play in time! And on it went…The Last Best Place…CLANKITY CLANK CLANK. Really?

Upon being asked several times to please stop, the man kept on. At this point (I had not paid the $75 per person ticket price -thanks to Rhonda – but if had, I would have been very upset), I simply told the man I enjoyed his spoons and asked to see them. He handed them over and I threw them in creek near the entrance …never to see or hear them again. He was upset, drunk, and belligerent …but many others were happy, and for a brief moment I was a hero. Sometimes you have to sacrifice a few soldiers to take the hill. In this case his spoons weren’t appreciated but if people want to enjoy something and be part of it, make them feel welcome. I want to be on a major league baseball team sometimes. We all want to be a part of something. It may not be exactly what you want to hear …but please think of the happiness you gave that person who might reminisce about this musical experience for ages. And remember… two spoons together are loud. Try one spoon and a pot-holder.

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Recording with the JBovier A-Style Mandolin

JBovier "A5-X"

JBovier "A5-X"

The new Balsam Range recording “Trains I Missed” exclusively features my JBovier, A-style mandolin.  I have used it on other recordings since getting it about 18 months ago but this is the first time I have used it on an entire project.  It just sounded amazing.  I have a wonderful F-style Gibson that I’ve used in most of my recording and live performances but the JBovier was the one in the studio this time…I loved the tone and the way the chop and rhythm recorded.  It was really clean with few overtones. 

The Gibson is a beast; great tone but very loud.  Sometimes it’s so loud and rings so much that it’s a challenge to record because of the overtones, but the JBovier was perfect.  The leads were crystal clear as well.  In fact, the entire band was blown away with how well it recorded and sounded! Van Atkins is a wonderful recording engineer and he records a lot of what I do as well as Balsam Range (he works for Crossroads/Mountain Home, our record label). Van was happier than I’ve ever seen him about the mandolin sounds we got. We were all pleasantly surprised.
Here’s a little history about this A-style mandolin… 

Jeff Cowherd had a JBovier Instrument booth at SPBGMA in Nashville a few years ago and he and I spoke at length about designing this particular mandolin.  I told him exactly what I wanted in a mandolin and he had it built for me.  He now has them mass produced and sells this particular model, A5-X The Darren Nicholson Model. It’s a unique looking and sounding instrument.  The A-5X has a satin finish, black top, and has a sunburst back and sides.  Of course, it has x-bracing (from the name), but also features a slight radius on the ebony fingerboard. In addition, I use a James tailpiece, guitar fret wire, and an L.R. Baggs pickup system. I exclusively use GHS strings. In my opinion, they are the best mandolin strings around. 

I hope you enjoy hearing it on the new recording as much as I did playing it! What a cool experience to see and hear one of my own ideas come to life like the launch of this new mandolin. The JBovier A-5X… Check it out!

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Music Magic at Wild Wings Cafe in Asheville

Wild Wings Cafe of AshevilleThe whole Western North Carolina area and especially Asheville has a rich music scene and I love being smack in the middle of it! You don’t often think of a commercial chain supporting something like roots music but in Asheville it happens! It’s an interesting pairing but in Western North Carolina it’s perfect.

The place I am thinking about is the regular gig we play at Wild Wing Café in downtown Asheville, NC.

Many of you know that I play regularly with the bluegrass band Balsam Range, and I love it, but a couple of Tuesdays every month I get to do something very special to me, and that’s the opportunity to play traditional country and bluegrass music with the Darren Nicholson Band. It’s a side project for me that include another wonderful cast of musicians. They are some of my dearest friends that I hadn’t seen much the past few years due to a crazy road life.

The band is Kevin Sluder (acoustic bass/vocals); Griff Martin (guitar/vocals); Richard Foulk (percussion); and myself playing mandolin and singing as well. Also,we are excited to announce that we’ve now added a 5th member to the band, bluegrass legend Steve Sutton on banjo. Steve is a 3-time Grammy nominee whom I have had the honor and pleasure to perform and travel with for 5 years, and I feel like magic happens when we play together so it’s a perfect fit.

Wild Wing Café is wonderful for many reasons; great food, drink, atmosphere. But a special twist is that we get to bring a style of music into a venue not really known for that. It’s great because lots of people who come in aren’t necessarily bluegrass fans, but we hope maybe they’ll stumble in on something unique and like what we’re doing. Hopefully we are serving as ambassadors for this music we love.

We play from 7-9pm on select Tuesdays which are great for all crowds. It has a wonderful mix of folks from college students to families to bluegrass fans. Everyone is welcome! The type of bluegrass and country music we play there definitely sounds like 50’s and 60’s era bluegrass and country (which at the time were basically one music form). You’ll hear the sounds of Jim and Jesse, the Osborne’s, George Jones, and Flatt & Scruggs. It has a truly traditional flavor and style that you can’t hear anywhere else these days.

They are the legends who inspire us and it comes out in our music. When you come, you might hear everything from Eric Clapton tunes to traditional songs so old we can’t trace the origin, but we try to hit on something for every listener. And don’t forget our special guests who sit in form time to time like Eddie Rose, Bill Byerly, and Jennifer Nicholson.

I feel so strongly about their food, service, and atmosphere that it’s the only venue I play regularly in Asheville. It’s been great to take our music to such a great place! Come see The Darren Nicholson Band at Wild Wing Café some Tuesday.

Wild Wing Café is located on Biltmore Avenue in Asheville and music starts at 7pm. The schedule can be seen at www.DarrenNicholson.net or at www.WildwingCafe.com/our-locations/asheville-nc.php.

Stop by and join us for some food while you listen and be sure to say Hi during the breaks.

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Got My Mojo Working…With the Harris Brothers

I got my mojo working with the Harris Brothers.   Balsam Range pulled into the Darin and Brooke Aldridge Festival in Cherryville, NC never expecting what we’d soon hear.  The talent was great that day; Darin and Brooke with their great band and the legendary JD Crowe and the New South.  They are all so incredible but it was great to have a non-bluegrass act at a festival for a wonderful break in the sound. 

Two guys, Reggie and Ryan Harris, boiled out of a jeep with instruments not even in cases and hit the stage as a duo.  Sometimes this can be somewhat disappointing amidst high caliber, five-piece, bands like Darin and JD. But they were equally as good in a totally different way and sound.  They did blues, bluegrass, old-time, country, jazz, gospel, and funk; and played each form at an expert level!  They are so talented and musically mature, that as duo they make more music than 99% of professional touring bands. 

They had the crowd in the palms of their hands (including all the other musicians in attendance that day).  I had never heard anything like it.  So great –  just bass, guitar, two incredible voices, and an old suitcase that doubled as a kick drum.  I was honored when they asked Darin and myself to share the stage for a few tunes (unrehearsed by the way).  We encored and it was musically a career highlight for me.  I am a fan of all forms of music.  We became instant friends and still play together on occasion (every chance I get). They are such genuine, nice people and so humble about their massive amount of talent.  The crowd could totally sense they were the real deal and were witnessing something special. 

Bluegrass fans will not generally seek out entertainers like the Harris Brothers but when they were force fed a big dose they could not help but love it.  I realized watching them that day it wasn’t about a flashy stage show, corny jokes, the commercial music we’re exposed to, but when two super-talented people get the chance to do their thing….nothing will ever entertain better than the real thing.   I will forever be a fan of the Harris Brothers.

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I Love What I Do!

Darren NicholsonI spent last night darting around Asheville with some of my good friends in the music business, Cia Cherryholmes, Sheri Clark, and Griff Martin. Dinner at the Lobster Trap, dessert at the Chocolate Lounge, and then all over town…on foot and having a ball! Music is what links us, and may be the terms on which we met or knew about each other, but the relationships go far beyond the music. This is even more important to me personally. We laughed about old times and spent much of the night discussing Asheville and WNC history, landmarks, and wonderful people from these mountains.

Bluegrass is a rare art form when the artists are accessible and can build close relationships with the fans. However, I view them from an artist’s perspective more like friends rather than fans. Artists, festival-goers and people who come to the shows are what make the bluegrass culture. I love getting to meet and chat with everyone involved. I can name what seems like a million instances where spending time with my musical friends made my trip.

What seems to stick out in my mind aren’t the notes I just played or sang or the break that someone took on a song. What I remember is playing the Mohegan Sun with Carl Jackson the night Kelly Clarkson brought a mob of teenage crazies; Little Jimmy Dickens cutting my birthday cake at the Grand Ole Opry; driving through the Swiss Alps with Jill Crabtree and Steve Sutton; riding in a two-seater plane over Alaska with Gena Britt; sitting with Merle Haggard on his bus chatting about Kern River; fishing the Yukon with the Steep Canyon Rangers, and on and on.

It’s why I love what I do!

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