Cherryholmes: Intelligent Design or Mutation?29 September 2010
Bluegrass has been a family enterprise from the outset. Bill Monroe honed his craft playing first with his uncle and then his brothers, but well before his Bluegrass Boys first took the stage, there were family minstrel acts traveling the byways. Today, there are still family bands across the spectrum of acoustic string music, from The Whites to the Parkington Sisters and all points in between.
Yet even given this musical legacy, it feels odd simply to lump the group Cherryholmes into the long tradition of bluegrass family bands. Their story is so singular, their ascent in the field so vertiginous and their style so distinctive that parallels with other music acts seem to miss the point. Rather than compare them to Del McCoury & Sons, I’m tempted instead to place them in the company of famed aerialists the Flying Wallendas or pyrotechnic legends the Grucci Family, idiosyncratic clans that have raised the business of grabbing attention to an art form.
I caught up with the Cherryholmes juggernaut last month at the Lake Champlain Bluegrass Festival, a homey event that takes place each year on a farm just a mile from the Canadian border. The band anchored the Saturday evening line-up, and as soon as they took the stage, my narrow little mind started to seize up. The band is a semiotic puzzle, a jumble of cultural references. First there’s mom Sandy, the Amazonian queen girded with a Celtic arm band, then there’s dad Jere, looking like Sean Connery playing a mountain man, and finally there’s the whole gaggle of offspring, all of whom— but for their instruments— would not look amiss backing Justin Timberlake. Add enough rhinestones and sequins to make Liberace blush and more tattoos than you’ll find in a prison yard and— well, see for yourself…
Jere Cherryholmes likes to call the band’s style “bluegrass on steroids.” The show has an energy that can take away the collective breath of the performers and viewers alike. Before you blink it seems, they’re five songs into their set and you’re thinking, “You know, maybe steroids aren’t so bad…” Still, when it’s all over, you wander away asking yourself, who are these born-again bow-hunting hippies in lip gloss?
It helps to know they’re from that great cultural blender known as California, and that Ma and Pa Cherryholmes met in church. This goes some way towards explaining their “Red Hot Chili Amish” aesthetic and lifestyle. I’m not joking about the Amish part either. The kids were home schooled, and the family code of conduct was not typical of most Southern Californian households: no television, internet, nor even headphones allowed, and no driving or dating until the child had reached eighteen.
Small wonder, then, that a heady mix of Old Testament rigor and hormonal sizzle fairly oozes from the stage at a Cherryholmes show. In truth, in interviews, members of the band seem entirely grounded and reasonable. The professions of faith that turn up frequently in their songs sound like genuine and heartfelt testaments, not bumper sticker slogans. The number in the video above— “Changed in a Moment”— is a gospel-inflected original tune penned and sung by Sandy that summons up both the Holy Spirit and a devilish swing rhythm. It’s remarkable how you can hear the background chatter give way to hoots and hollers as the audience gets swept up in the song.
I can’t help wondering if the transformative moment that Cherryholmes refers to in this composition was the death of the family’s eldest child, a daughter named Shelley who passed away from respiratory failure in 1999. As the oft-told story goes, it was in seeking solace in the wake of this tragedy that the family embraced the idea of playing bluegrass together and began their meteoric trajectory.
Of course, playing connect-the-dots between a songwriter’s biography and his or her art is a dangerous game, and I would resist the temptation were the members of the band not so devoted to keeping this personal loss in their— and our— thoughts. Each album they release bears a dedication to Shelley’s memory, the latest— Cherryholmes IV: Common Threads— being no exception.
I have a small arsenal of Cherryholmes material from Lake Champlain that I’ll fire off in the coming weeks, but it makes sense to start with a number that has an overtly spiritual theme, and not just because band makes no secret of its faith. It’s hard to spend an hour looking at this photogenic ensemble and listening to their impeccable musicianship without pondering some Big Questions. The whole ensemble is so perfect, right down to the name Cherryholmes, which sounds like a brand of some sort— perhaps for a pipe tobacco? Anyway, you take the whole thing in and, depending on your metaphysical inclinations, you either think, “Only the Great TV Producer in the Sky could come up with this,” or “It took nearly seven billion people and all the ages of history, but here they are.” Yer call.
Yer Pal— Curly