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Cherryholmes Serves Up Sizzlin’ Self-Help

6 January 2011

Dang. Anybody know which way 2010 went? I believe I left some stuff in the back seat…

Cousin Curly’s got whole stocking full of good stuff to share with you in the New Year, but first I’ve got to wrap up our “Cherryholmes Season.” What with the calendar turning over and all, it seems appropriate to close out this brief series with a bit of soul-searching— a Cherryholmes specialty.

For those of you not up on Team Cherryholmes, a quick recap: Since leaping full-blown onto the stage a decade ago, this six-member family band has become one of the most popular acts in bluegrass. I’ve already commented on the band’s technical virtuosity and its puzzling mix of piety and razzle-dazzle. There’s one key ingredient to the group’s music that I have yet to delve into, however, and that’s the way it continually draws on the language of self-improvement in its lyrics.

Take the latest release from the band, Cherryholmes IV: Common Threads. After listening to that album for a while, I realized that I wouldn’t need to buy a Daily Affirmations calendar for 2011— all I had to do was press “play” on my Cherryholmes playlist every morning and I’d be good to go. True, a number of their compositions mine a millennialist vein— not surprising, given the family’s deep Christian roots, to say nothing of its affiliation with the born-again Ricky Skaggs— but more often than not, the group’s songs take a psychological tack. When working in this mode, the group trades notions of damnation and salvation for an ethic focused on redemption through self-realization.

This self-help theme turns up in songs written by many members of the family, but the expert in the genre would seem to be banjo-slinging daughter Cia. I caught the whole Cherryholmes brood performing Cia’s composition “How Far Will You Go” at last summer’s Lake Champlain Bluegrass Festival. Contrary to what the title suggests, the song has nothing to do with the question so often posed by one teenager to another. Rather, it’s an up-tempo ballad about a troubled girl for whom the song’s narrator has plenty of advice. Have a listen:

I hope this video captures a little of the energetic interplay that is a hallmark of the band’s stage presence. As I’ve noted before, this is a group that really knows how to swing. All that good mojo can make you overlook what’s being said. In the midst of all the ruckus, Cia is laying it out for her tormented friend:

Why do you cling so desperately to the hurt that you don’t need

You can’t let go of the fear in your mind, and leave it behind

While I admire the song’s ambition— its attempt to capture a certain inner turmoil in words and music— I confess that I recoil a bit from its artless approach. Cia Cherryholmes is a gifted songwriter, but her work would be stronger if she could find a way to evoke rather than merely address. More often than not, the songs that stand the test of time paint a picture, leaving audiences over the ages to find meaning in the composition. Take this old line about another young woman who is “passing away her troubles:”

Last time I saw little Maggie

She was sittin’ by the banks of the sea

With a forty-four around her

And a banjo on her knee.

In contrast with the concrete imagery of this lyric, songs from the Cherryholmes family are laced with references to a purely inner world (the word “mind” crops up repeatedly). The problem with this on-the-nose approach to addressing psychology is that, ironically enough, it forestalls any attempt to look deeper. When, in another song, Cia sings, “I’m left with anger and annoyance,” well, what more is there to say? The songwriter has already analyzed her mental state, leaving the listener no role beyond “being there for her.”

Perhaps I have a point, or perhaps I “just don’t get it.” It occurs to me that my beef with Cherryholmes’ particular brand of confessional songwriting might be of a piece with a broader disconnect on my part. I’ll spare you the sermon, but let’s just say that contemporary American culture is riddled with values that, from a more traditional perspective at least, seem contradictory. After pondering long and hard about the mixed signals I get from Cherryholmes, it finally dawned on me that the problem is with me, not them. I’m trying to reconcile all these disparate cues the family sends out— the hints of rusticity, the pouting glances, the homespun values, the tattoo fetish— when in fact I just need to let go. Instead of trying to look under the hood of the band’s tour bus to see what makes it run, perhaps I should be more focused on the sleek exterior, because maybe that surface level is all there is— or at least all that matters in this case. When you look at the group’s work this way, it starts to add up: everything you need to know is right out there, at once as glossy and raw as a photo of a steak in a supermarket circular.

Yer Pal— Curly

Pedantic Postscript: Ever since I first heard Cia Cherryholmes sing, I’ve asked myself, “Where have I heard that voice before?” The other day, I had a Union Station song on the iPod and— bingo! In interviews, mother Sandy Cherryholmes has confirmed that the kids listened to Alison Krauss & Union Station early on, and Krauss’ influence on Cia’s singing is unmistakable. It’s interesting to hear influences like this crop up in the work of younger performers; it reminds us that their points of reference are as likely to be current, still-active artists as it is to be the forefathers and mothers of the genre.

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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

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