How is it that one of the hottest bluegrass groups in America today learned bluegrass not from tradition, but from scratch? And based in California, no less?
The family band The Cherryholmes has experienced a meteoric rise since first studying bluegrass a mere ten years ago. Since then they’ve won the International Bluegrass Music Association Entertainers of the Year award for 2005 and were nominated for the same award in 2007. Also, Cherryholmes received two Grammy nominations for Best Bluegrass Album, in 2006 and 2007.
The Cherryholmes -- yes, that’s their name -- comprise Jere (standup bass), wife Sandy Lee (mandolin), Cia Leigh (banjo), Molly Kate and B.J. (fiddles), and Skip (guitar). We spoke to Jere last week.There’s a unique story behind how the Cherryholmes found bluegrass.
Jere Cherryholmes: I do think it was along the lines of a divine intervention type of thing. I believe in that. Our oldest daughter passed away about nine years ago. Up until that point the only people in the family involved in music were my wife and myself, playing music in church. Then our oldest daughter, Cia, had taken up the guitar, playing in a church youth group, doing contemporary worship songs.
About a month after Shelley’s passing we just decided to take the day off on a Sunday. We heard there was a bluegrass festival about 100 miles from the house. We decided to go out there to spend the day, where nobody knew us and we didn’t know anybody, and just listen to some music. And featured that particular day were Jim and Jesse McReynolds and the Virginia Boys, and they had such a unique approach to the stage, made you feel good. Looking around the festival we could see it was the kind of music everybody could participate in in whatever way they chose to participate. And I just came up with the idea it would be a therapeutic thing for the entire family rather than just me and my wife doing our own thing. We hadn’t intended at that time to form a quote-unquote “family band” and perform in places.How do you go about teaching a whole family bluegrass from scratch?
Jere Cherryholmes: My wife Sandy has a background in music and music theory, and we basically gave lessons ourselves. We were homeschooling at the time, and we made the music part of the curriculum. We felt it was a big plus to teach the kids how to imitate, because then they’ll be able to play anything.
If you listen to somebody play off of sheet music or tablature, it has a mechanical feel. There are just certain things, like in Celtic fiddling with the grace notes, that you really can’t notate, it’s almost something that happens because of somebody’s style. It turned out it seemed like God had blessed the kids with an ability to absorb things, and Sandy had taught them how to play by ear, so whatever they could hear they could play.That’s how bluegrass has always been taught, by ear.
Jere Cherryholmes: That’s exactly right. Roots music has a real funny variety in it. In different parts of the country you’ll hear differerent styles everywhere. In some areas where it’s not the tradition, you’ll find a lot of people picked it up in college, and they do have a tendency to overanalyze it and discuss the finer points and intellectualize it. And that sanitizes it.
Then you go down to North Carolina, where you can find five random people on the street and put together a bluegrass band, because it’s something cultural. We didn’t grow up with it, but we were open to learning by listening. And not only listening to what I sounds like, but what it feels like.What were your first gigs like?
Jere Cherryholmes:Within about three months we got a call to auditon for a job, which didn’t make any sense. Why would anybody audition for a job with a bunch of little kids when you’ve only been practicing for three months? But we did and we got hired. That was in July '99. The job was every Saturday to play for about six hours up in the mountains of San Bernardino, at the Apple Festival in Oak City village.Six hours is a lot of material.
Jere Cherryholmes: That gave us the impetus to push. The original job was to be a roving band in a tourist area. That means you’d play for a half hour in one area, and when that half –hour’s over you’d move to another area and play for another half-hour. The very first day we were up there we had learned enough material to do about a half an hour.
But we found out by the time we’d been there about two hours we were like the Pied Piper. Everybody who’d seen us during one half hour was following us to where we were the next half hour. Before we knew it we had an enormous crowd following us around the park.
The owners of the park figured they ought to get us on a stage and centralize. So now we realized we would be at a stage and couldn’t play the same 30 minutes over and over. So we had to really cram. And we did all kinds of stuff. That’s when we started putting dancing into the routine. Then I would tell jokes. Anything we could pull out of the hat. Dress up like hillbillies. We did that for three different seasons up there. That opened up for us being called by regional festivals to play, and to travel.You didn't originally have a banjo in the band, did you?
Jere Cherryholmes: At the time we didn’t have a banjo in the band, because nobody had one and nobody knew how to play one and nobody understood how to play one and we couldn’t teach anybody how to play one. After about a year and half we’d played two or three bluegrass festivals, and I told Sandy, “We’re going to have to do something about the banjo thing, because if we’re going to play bluegrass festivals we’re going to have to have a banjo.”
So I gave Cia the job of playing the banjo and teaching herself. And she taught herself how to play it in about two months. And of course at same time working with her youngest brother to pick up the guitar. When we reconfigured we had her on the banjo and Skip on the guitar, and that’s basically the configuration now.Twin fiddles, while not unheard of, are a pretty unusual touch in bluegrass.
Jere Cherryholmes: It's something that's been featured in bluegrass for years, but not many bands will carry two fiddle players. Sometimes if they want to have twin fiddles, like Bobby Osborne and the Rocky Top Express, if they have to play an Opry date they may have a second fiddle player come sit in with them for that particular show. Bill Monroe at one time did carry twin fiddles, and that’s where we got a lot of our ideas.
People talk about sibling harmony in vocals because of the genetics, and with acts like the Isaacs the voices can blend almost seamlessly. But the interesting thing about our two fiddlers is they can play that way. So that’s been a unique thing we have is the twin fiddles.You stay in touch with the gospel side of bluegrass, which is vital but often, maybe intentionally, overlooked by newer acts.
Jere Cherryholmes: Well, bluegrass just has an ambience of grace about it. And the gospel aspect has played a big part for us. We play heartfelt, but we’re by no means a gospel band. We do play and write some gospel songs, but we don’t evangelize.
But one of the things I like about bluegrass is that you can go onstage and say something patriotic or sing a gospel song and no one will quibble about it. I guess if I were to bill our band a certain way, I would describe our music as “bluegrass on steroids.”Do you ever find the kids teach you things as well?
Jere Cherryholmes: Oh, yeah, all the time. I’m the bass player and I know foundational stuff and I learn from them all the time. They have a less cluttered mind from the details of life.
Our kids have developed that thing – I didn’t have it – of listening. So now they can listen to a song and pick all the parts out and know who’s playing what. They know everybody’s styles. They’ll hear something and say, “That’s Stewart Duncan on the fiddle.” And I’ll look at the liner notes and it’ll say Stewart Duncan on the fiddle. Obviously I feel somewhat humble though I don’t want to let them know that too much (laughs).What: CherryholmesWhere: Lucas TheaterWhen: 8 pm, March 29Cost: $40 - $10 at www.savannahmusicfestival.org or 525-5050.Info: cherryholmes.musiccitynetworks.com/