Harmony is one of Cherryholmes’ family values

by Ogi Overman

When the International Bluegrass Music Association announced the five nominees for 2005 Entertainer of the Year, its highest award, barely an eyebrow was raised. Among the nominees were perennial favorites, the Del McCoury Band, which has won the award nine times; Alison Krauss and Union Station, which has taken the top honor twice; Rhonda Vincent and the Rage, which garnered the prize in 2001; and Doyle Lawson and Quicksilver, which has never won the Entertainer award (although they’ve been named Vocal Group of the Year five times), and thus became the sentimental favorite. There was one other group nominated, for the simple reason that each category has five nominees, but given the relative track records of the artists, they were given absolutely no chance of winning. Merely being mentioned in the same breath as these cream-of-the-crop bands would, however, be a notable accomplishment in itself.

So, when the winner was announced at the awards ceremony last September and the envelope contained the name ‘“Cherryholmes,’” one can only imagine the shockwave that reverberated through the crowd at the Grand Ole Opry House. It is no stretch to say that the entire bluegrass community ‘— which has become a rather sizable and formidable force over the past decade or so ‘— was stunned. Rarely, if ever, has a group come out of nowhere to rise to the upper echelon of the genre so fast and with so little fanfare. Oh, there have been a couple of groups that could be considered overnight sensations ‘— Longview and Chesapeake come to mind ‘— but both those had long-established players from other groups in tow.

But this Cherryholmes bunch had no such name recognition. In fact, they were a family, a mom and pop and their four offspring, ages 14-22. What’s more, that’s their real name, the Cherryholmes family, not a clever play on words like Seldom Scene or IIIrd Tyme Out.

The only tipoff that Cherryholmes was a band on the fast track was that after three self-released CDs, they had been signed by Ricky Skaggs’ label, Skaggs Family Records, which timed the CD’s release to coincide with the IBMA awards. So, what is it about this sextet of two brothers and two sisters (plus mom and pop, of course) from Georgia that has set the bluegrass world on its ear? For starters, they have the built-in advantage of being a family, with all six capable of singing both lead and backup. It is generally recognized that sibling harmony has more agreement in terms of pitch, tone, attack and dynamics, and it is obvious that they have honed their natural harmonic gifts with endless hours of practice.

Moreover, each is a virtuoso instrumentalist, already drawing comparisons to the elite pickers in their respective field. Dad Jere plays standup bass; mom Sandy Lee plays mandolin and switches occasionally to clawhammer banjo; Cia Leigh not only plays excellent lead and rhythm guitar but is a standout banjoist; fiddler BJ is a rising star in the mold of Stuart Duncan and Aubrey Haney; Skip began playing mandolin at age 9 and is already becoming a world class guitarist as well; and Molly Kate, who plays left-handed, was nominated for Fiddler of the Year by the association in 2004.

But the element that typically separates the good from the great is song selection, and on this front Cherryholmes’ taste is impeccable. Their repertoire leans more toward the traditional, but they have obviously struck a responsive chord with both purists and innovators alike. When they play the EMF Fringe Series Sunday, July 16 at the Flying Anvil, look for both good ol’ boys and preppies to be in attendance. And both demographics ‘— and everyone in between ‘— will be amazed.

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