Bluegrass Music in the North Carolina Smoky Mountains
Owner of the Meadowlark Motel, Joseph McElroy, recently interviewed Tim Surrett of the bluegrass band, Balsam Range, on his Gateway to the Smokies podcast. (Listen to the full episode here.) Tim sings his praises of the Great Smoky Mountains as he talks about growing up in the Balsam Range of the Blue Ridge Mountains and his journey into bluegrass music.
Bluegrass has Deep Roots in the Smokies
Tim grew up in Canton – right down the road from Maggie Valley, NC and the Meadowlark Motel. Deep in the Balsam Range, he developed a great love for the outdoors.
“Growing up in the mountains, the outdoors was really the only recreation we had,” says Tim. “I remember going for Sunday drives on the Parkway, riding my Dad’s Tennessee Walkers up to Clingmans Dome, or going camping and trout fishing in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.”
His favorite fishing spots? “Anywhere on the Pigeon River above Canton! East Fork, West Fork, Middle Prong, Sunburst, you name it.”
But a love of nature wasn’t the only aspect of the North Carolina Smokies that was instilled in Tim at a young age. His father was a musician, who sang country music locally. Tim also admired his cousin’s band, and when they needed a bass player, he stepped in and his musical journey began in full force.
“I went out, bought a bass, and learned how to play a few one-fingered songs with my cousin’s band. Then when my dad stepped aside, I already knew the songs, so I came in and took his place with all the people he had been playing with.”
Gospel Influences on Bluegrass in the North Carolina Smoky Mountains
At just seventeen years old, Tim had the opportunity to tour with a gospel quartet called The Happy Travelers. (He even missed his prom to play gigs!) During that time gospel music became a passion, and he stayed with the genre for many years, going on to sing with the popular gospel group, the Kingsmen. In fact, his first time at the Grand Ole Opry was with the Kingsmen.
Over the years, gospel, country, and bluegrass blended together in Tim’s musical journey, but it all came down to two main things – the truth of the message and good music. One particular influence that left a significant mark on Tim was Cherokee Gospel.
“I’m no lettered scholar on this,” he admits, “but some of the first things that the Cherokee translated were hymns from old gospel hymnals. And to this day, you can still hear Cherokee family gospel groups that will sing a song in English, like Amazing Grace, and then sing it in the Cherokee language. It’s beautiful.”
Bluegrass and Balsam Range (the band)
Of all the music he plays, bluegrass feels the most authentic to Tim. When he and the other band members of Balsam Range began playing together in Canton, they hadn’t known each other very long.
“We had so much fun on the two records that we worked on, that we decided to meet up and play together.”
Buddy Melton asked if they wanted to join him for a show, and they were such a hit that they decided to keep playing together as Balsam Range. At the time, they thought they would only be a local group, so they named themselves after their hometown mountain range. Little did they know how their popularity would grow.
They went on to headline major festivals from coast to coast, appear at the Grand Ole Opry multiple times, collaborate with the Atlanta Pops Orchestra Ensemble, win 13 International Bluegrass Music Association awards – including 2018 IBMA Entertainer of the Year, and put out 8 critically acclaimed albums.
You can find their most recent album, Aeonic, on the Balsam Range website, but you may not be hearing them live and in person any time soon. “Unfortunately, there will not be many live shows and things will probably be similar to 2020 for a while,” Tim predicts.
Since March of 2020 he has only played three shows, and the band is currently focused on their music. Every December they host their own festival, the Balsam Range Art of Music Festival, in the Stuart Auditorium, which draws in crowds from across the country and even internationally. There’s a Save the Date for this December, but like so much else these days, plans are up in the air.
In the meantime, you can find Tim on WPTL Radio hosting the show Papertown Roots Radio. It airs every Tuesday and Thursday at 7pm EST and can be found on Facebook as well. And you can enjoy socially distanced live music at the Meadowlark Motel. Our artist in residence, Mike Ogletree, along with other local musicians, performs every Saturday night. Book a room for the weekend, or just swing by for the music!