It’s easy to wonder about the attraction bluegrass bands have to working with orchestras, but it’s a trend that doesn’t seem to be dying anytime soon. Cherryholmes, Daily and Vincent, Michael Cleveland—the cynic might feel that it’s a desire to grant respectability, and what better way to do it than to sit in front of a bunch of musicians in formal wear.
Balsam Range is, to my mind, one of the very best bands working today, and now they’ve done it, too. “Mountain Overture,” is a collaboration with the Atlanta Pops Orchestra and includes some of their best material, including “Last Train to Kitty Hawk,” “Eldorado Blue,” and “I Hear the Mountains.” That material, in the original recordings, had a brilliant mix of caution and drive; it served to relate stories of various kinds of isolation, a perennial trope of bluegrass. Balsam Range doesn’t have the high lonesome voices of some of the originators of the form, but they do have the sentiment, that of being out there, on your own, left to puzzle over the vagaries of love, and work, and the fickleness of fortune.
Classical music, of course, doesn’t share the same perspective, and the tension between sensibilities exists throughout this recording. The drive is held back by the arcing strings, the agility reduced by weighty arrangements. Sometimes the punctuation that the orchestra adds is unfortunate, as the horns just after the line “Last train to Kitty Hawk,” undercutting the sentiment, cheapening it, rather than supporting it.
The thoughts—as in that case, the things that we lose within an encroaching modernity—are reduced to footnotes. Which is too bad, because these are great thoughts, related within some fantastically written songs. I’m not exactly sure who this album is for—a grump will say that working with an orchestra is more for the band than the audience—but, in any case, the better recordings are the originals.
Balsam Range is a great band, with great writing, and beautiful arrangements, all most evident when it’s just them, alone against the world. If you are new to Balsam Range, start with the albums “Mountain Voodoo” and “Last Train to Kitty Hawk.” They’re fantastic and truly deserve your attention. “Mountain Overture” is meh.