By Nygaard, Scott | Acoustic Guitar, February 2009 | Go to article overview


Nygaard, Scott, Acoustic Guitar

Formed in grief, the family band plays an aggressive, vibrant brand of bluegrass.

The genesis of the band Cherryholmes has begun to pass into bluegrass legend. In 1999, after the death of their eldest daughter, Sandy Lee and Jere Cherryholmes took their four children to a bluegrass festival, where they were inspired to start a band as a way to heal and come together as a family. The young- sters, Cia Leigh, B.J., Skip, and Molly Kate, began practicing intensely, often as much as eight hours a day. Though they had some guidance from Sandy, an amateur musician at the time, they mostly taught themselves, learning from recordings of first- and second-generation bluegrass musicians such as Jimmy Martin, J.D. Crowe, and Larry Sparks. A mere six years later, the band, with Cia on banjo, B.J. on fiddle and mandolin, Skip on guitar, Molly on fiddle, Sandy on mandolin, and Jere on bass, had so charmed and bowled over the bluegrass world that they won the International Bluegrass Music Association's highest award Entertainer of the Year.

That award may have stemmed from a certain amount of novelty - it is indeed stunning to see four siblings play with as much fire, virtuosity, and soul as the youngest members of the Cherryholmes family do. But if mere was any doubt that Cherryholmes is one of the most talented, original, and high-powered bands on the scene, that was dispelled by their most recent recordings for the Skaggs Family label, Cherryholmes II: Black and White (2007), and especially Cherryholmes III: Don't Believe, released in September 2008.

Don't Believe opens with Cia's original song "I Can Only Love You (So Much)," a mediumtempo bluesy bluegrass burner that establishes Cia as a powerful stylist, influenced by Alison Krauss and Rhonda Vincent, but with her own melodic and emotional approach. However, the blistering minor-key title track really showcases what this band is about. Starting with a newgrassy fiddle-andmandolin duet accompanied only by Skip's surging, crashing rhythm guitar, the bass and banjo enter halfway through Cia's keening first verse, establishing Cherryholmes' signature intense groove, in which the entire band attacks their instruments as if it may be the last thing they ever do. "Our personalities are all very aggressive and it just comes out in the music," Cia says. "We never consciously said, 'Oh, we're going to set out to have this really aggressive, high-powered music' It's just that's the way we are as people."

A major part of the band's appeal, Cherryholmes' driving groove is anchored by Jere's throbbing acoustic bass and supervised by Skip, who roams the stage like a hyperactive basketball coach shouting encouragement and directions through his guitar. "A major part of our rhythm being as strong as it is has to do with Skip's rhythm guitar playing," Cia says. "He's just so strong, and I try to play a rhythm on my banjo that fits the guitar." Though Skip is a fluid and exciting soloist - influenced by Bryan Sutton, Tony Rice, and Larry Sparks, as well as "anybody who has a lot of talent for guitar playing" - he takes more pleasure in his role as band groove director. "My real art and soul is in how I play rhythm," he says. "There are a lot of people who want to play ten million notes in their solos and go absolutely bananas, but I really enjoy sitting back and trying to play the best rhythm I can. I feel that when I lay things down the way I do, it really helps to make our music what it is."

Cherryholmes is also distinguished by its largely original repertoire. (The only nonoriginal song on Don't Believe is the Gram Parsons/ Chris Hillman country-rock classic "Devil in Disguise.") And while the entire family contributes to the songwriting process, Cia and B.J. are the band's primary songwriters, with Cia composing some of the most affecting songs, including the brooding, minor-key "Broken." "I started writing when I was about 17, right after I picked up the banjo," Cia says. …

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