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Cherryholmes: a new kind of family bluegrass band

Stewart OksenhornThe Aspen TimesAspen, CO Colorado
Erik AndersonBluegrass band Cherryholmes has canceled its performance scheduled Friday at Aspen's Wheeler Opera House.
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Editors note: Cherryholmes was scheduled to play Friday at Aspen’s Wheeler Opera House. The show has been canceled.

When his oldest child, Shelly, died a decade ago, Jere Cherryholmes very quickly saw the opportunity to turn the ultimate sorrowful experience into something positive. And that wasnt going to happen through counseling or support groups. Or something like that, said the church-going, Harley-riding Cherryholmes, whose beard who qualify him for honorary membership in ZZ Top.What he had in mind was a musical experience that could be shared and enjoyed by the whole family. Soon after the death, Cherryholmes whose first name is pronounced as Jerry and his wife Sandy took the surviving family to the Golden West Bluegrass Festival in Norco, some 30 miles west of Los Angeles. Watching the bands, and seeing the parking lot/campground picking scene that is a part of virtually every such festival, he realized that music might play a bigger role in the familys healing process.I saw people playing in the campground, he said. It was all different talent levels, all different ages. I got the thought that we could get together in the evenings in the house, just play together. Give us something to do besides veg out and watch TV. People going their separate ways in the house that didnt seem like a good idea. We wanted to put everyone together, spent a lot of face time, do something in common.Bluegrass was hardly the obvious thing to rally around. Jere was a bassist who had played in bad garage-rock bands in the 60s; Sandy was trained on piano, and had played decades earlier in an R&B group. Together, the two played worship songs in church. I might have heard Bill Monroes name, said Cherryholmes, referring to the grandfather of bluegrass. But I didnt know who he was.He never got to meet Monroe, who died in 1996, three years before Cherryholmes developed his interest in bluegrass. But Cherryholmes along with Sandy, and their four kids now walk amongst the greats of the genre. The family band that emerged out of Shellys death, out of the Golden West festival, out of those living-room picking sessions, sang at Jimmy Martins funeral, been guests at Ralph Stanleys Virginia home, are signed to Ricky Skaggs record label, and counts among their friends Jessie McReynolds and Del McCoury.Cherryholmes which features Jere on bass and Sandy on mandolin, as well as banjoist Cia, fiddler Mollie, guitarist Skip, and B.J., who jumps around instrumentally has also picked up four Grammy nominations, been named Entertainer of the Year by the International Bluegrass Music Association and toured Europe.None of this was on Jeres mind when he put instruments in the hands of his home-schooled kids. He was just looking for a way to get the family together. We felt it was a throwback, retro. Families out in the East that was their entertainment, he said. And bluegrass seemed the way to go because the festivals and the music itself seemed family-oriented.The thing about bluegrass is, it has an entry level, said Cherryholmes, speaking from a parking lot this one at a Wal-Mart near Pueblo. Unless youre Michael Jackson and his family, youre probably not going to do Motown. But in bluegrass theres a place for you. Its one of the few genres that has a place for amateurs or semi-professionals. And bluegrass festivals tend to be family-friendly. We couldnt play in bars.Much to his surprise, though, the six Cherryholmes were able, almost immediately, to hold their own in a high-level parking-lot session. After learning a few songs, they hit the festival campground again this time at the Huck Finn Jubilee in Victorville, Calif.We were just jamming like everyone else, said Cherryholmes. But when you arrive en masse, all these kids, people pay attention. And when people listened, they were impressed. The family got home to find a message from someone looking for entertainment in their apple orchard during picking season. The band auditioned, and were hired for their first professional gig. Over the next year or so, they broadened their stage experience by playing at numerous small bluegrass festivals. Cherryholmes says they were the token family band, but adds it was obvious that there was more than just the cute kids and the proud parents.I had no expectation theyd be so talented. Especially, all of them, said Cherryholmes of his tribe. I thought one of them might be talented, but the level they all play with no lessons Id never considered that.Cia, the oldest of the children, has emerged as the most visible of the family members. On Cherryholmes III: Dont Believe, released in September, she is the most prominent songwriter and lead vocalist. She has also appeared on albums by J.D. Crowe, and on Jim Lauderdales Grammy-winning The Bluegrass Diaries. But Jere says that, from the beginning, there has been a friendly competition to out-do one another. And sometimes not so friendly: He says it was not unheard of for one sibling to steal anothers licks by listening through a door. Jere fostered the competitive spirit by putting the family in a circle and having each child solo in rotation, with the rhythm getting progressively faster until someone fumbled the lead. No one has been crowned the winner yet; Jere says that at the groups concerts, theres no center-stage performer.Six years ago, when Cia was turning 18, the family had to make a decision to either pursue music full-time, or let Cia find another place in the world college, another musical gig, a regular job. They decided to Cherryholmes chase the big time as Cherryholmes. Jere quit his job as a carpenter, and the family packed into a bus and headed for Nashville. The band was on the road some 300 days a year and never had time to move out of the bus; it was only last June that the parents finally found the time to buy a house in Goodlettsville, just north of Nashville.It proved to be the right move. After three early albums including the 2001 debut Still a Little Rough Around the Edges the band signed to Skaggs Family Records, owned by country star-turned-mandolin picker Ricky Skaggs. They have three albums out on the label.Cherryholmes may have taken its place in bluegrass tradition, but it also seeks to expand the borders. With the younger generation beginning to write original material, Jere says the sound has taken on a slight rock n roll influence. (Though, at least on Dont Believe, gospel is a more obvious element.) In concert, he says the band flies around the stage: Its not Bill Monroe and five guys standing around a microphone, just doing the music. That should play well when Cherryholmes plays the Bonnaroo Festival, not far from their Tennessee home, in June.Evolutionary pressures are imminent when youre dealing with an art form, said Cherryholmes. And now that the kids are older, theyre writing and its reflecting something coming from the soul, not just the head. And youth is always just a little bit edgy.The band is working another end of the artistic spectrum as well. Jim Gray, who works with the Nashville Symphony Orchestra, has scored 20 of Cherryholmes songs for orchestra and bluegrass band, and the group has played a handful of concerts backed by a symphony. They have three such performances scheduled for next year at the Schermerhorn Center, home of the Nashville Symphony.While Cherryholmes the band is making noteworthy music, music-making is having its intended effect on Cherryholmes the family. It has kept the clan together, and away from the TV.They all have a vested interest. Theyre all intricately involved, even with the business aspect of the band everything from inventory of the product to publicity, said Jere of his children. I think its helped my children to mature. Its given them an opportunity to interact with professionals. People would call it an abnormal upbringing but I guess its, Do you call it normal to have blue hair and be a skateboard punk?Cherryholmes adds that the success on the musical side has been an incentive to keep the family intact. While the kids do session work in Nashville, no one is clamoring to break off and form their own project.Mollys only 16, but she already has four Grammy nominations, he said. Not many kids have that. Because were successful, the kids arent pulled into doing something else on the side.stewart@aspentimes.com


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