Haywood County’s home-grown bluegrass band, Balsam Range, is back with its popular Art of Music Festival (AOM), Dec. 2 — 4 at Lake Junaluska.

Attracting concertgoers from WNC and beyond, the multi-night performances have been a rousing success each year. While the annual festival launched in 2016, it paused in 2020, due to the pandemic.

“We’re excited to be able to get back together,” said Buddy Melton, Balsam Range lead vocalist and fiddle player. “This year has a special feeling about it. After being away for a while due to the pandemic, we realize the importance of live music — it enriches the quality of life and happily takes the mind off other things.”

The festival

If you think AOM is just a bluegrass festival, think again. It’s not.

Now in its fifth year, the festival has something for varied musical tastes — including the Atlanta Pops Orchestra Ensemble, with Celtic Woman Chloe Agnew and John Driskell Hopkins, of the Zac Brown Band; The Cleverlys’ comedy and musical ability; Blue Highway, one of Balsam Range’s favorite bluegrass bands; and performances by Balsam Range each night.

“You can listen to music at home, but there’s an electricity to being at a live performance,” said Darren Nicholson, Balsam Range vocalist and mandolin player.

The Atlanta Pops Orchestra Ensemble is back by popular demand.

“It’s become a staple of the festival,” Melton said. “People tell us, ‘please make it happen — bring back the Atlanta Pops.’”

To keep the material fresh, Balsam Range has been working up some new songs with Wes Funderburk, who writes the orchestration for the Atlanta Pops performances with Balsam Range.

“We’re excited to be able to do the festival again,” Melton said. “Everyone has had a tough year. Let’s enjoy something good. We’re looking forward to visiting with our friends and celebrating live music.”

Balsam Range

Balsam Range, the Grammy- and IBMA-winning bluegrass and acoustic band, has been blazing trails in the music industry and spreading its love of the mountains. The Haywood County-based band is fresh off its win for 2021 Song of the Year for “Richest Man” at the International Bluegrass Music Association (IBMA) awards and its latest album release, “Moxie and Mettle.”

Now in its 14th year, Balsam Range is going strong, delighting audiences with its five founding members: Buddy Melton, fiddle and lead tenor; Tim Surrett, stand-up bass, dobro and vocals; Darren Nicholson, mandolin and vocals; Caleb Smith, guitar and vocals; and Marc Pruett, banjo.

The band loves the people of Western North Carolina — so much so, that this fall, it held a free flood relief concert in Canton and an outdoor bluegrass festival to support the Haywood County Arts Council.

Blue Highway

Blue Highway has earned widespread respect and an international following through its 27 years of touring, still with four of the original band members. Nominated for 2022 IBMA Vocal Group of the Year, the band includes founding members Tim Stafford, Shawn Lane, Jason Burleson and Wayne Taylor, and the newest member, Gary Hultman.

“Blue Highway has influenced all of us in Balsam Range,” Melton said. “We’ve always admired them as a band, with their incredible harmonies. They’ve had a big impact on the music industry — and they are masters of each of their individual instruments.”

Blue Highway has garnered IBMA awards for vocal group of the year, song of the year, Gospel performance of the year, album of the year, to name a few of the accolades, plus three Grammy nominations.

“The festival is a great opportunity to share their music,” Melton said.

The Cleverlys

The Cleverlys make a return visit to Art of Music, having slayed the audience with their over-the-top comedy and musicianship during the 2018 festival.

This good time band is a made up of a “family” of musicians — including leader of the pack, Digger Cleverly, and “nephews” Ricky Lloyd, Sock, DVD and Cub.

“If Earl Scruggs, Dolly Parton, and Spinal Tap spawned a litter of puppies, it would be the Cleverlys,” wrote the New York Times.

As to the hilarious “feud” raging on social media between Digger Cleverly and Balsam Range, music lovers are wondering what might happen when The Cleverlys perform on stage at Balsam Range’s Art of Music Festival.

“We’ve been saying the AOM presents some of our favorite musicians …. and the Cleverlys.” Melton said.

“There’s no telling what’s going down at the festival,” Nicholson said.

“This can be an ambush,” Melton said. “Anything’s fair in love and war.”

The gauntlet is tossed. Stay tuned for some hilarity and great music.

Festival tickets are available at: www.itickets.com/events/451458.html. Individual evening tickets may be purchased, or as a package for Dec. 3 and 4.

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