So, who’s your favorite Cherryholmes? I’m tempted to say Jere, partly because of the bassist’s and patriarch’s old-prospector-on-a-Harley look, although he brings some of the worst onstage schtick in all of bluegrass. You don’t hear much from Jere on Cherryholmes IV: Common Threads, the family band’s new album. He sings none of the thirteen new songs, which might be another reason to like him. After all, the group’s singing is one of their real weaknesses, along with a treacly set of new-agey songs that, despite some considerable instrumental flash, sinks the album.
The band are all about flash, as evidenced by the slick album covers and the Glamour Shots in the packaging. Cherryholmes’ promo materials look like they were assembled by the marketing team in charge of Cinderella or Winger publicity back in the big ‘80s, right down to the Roman numerals in the titles and the lightning bolts on the covers. Still, as ripe as the Cherryholmeses appear to be for satire, the band is no joke. Ever since deciding to mold their children into a a bluegrass ensemble years ago, Jere and Sandy Lee Cherryholmes (yep, real name) have led an impassioned writing, recording, and touring life, turning themselves and their kids—two boys, two girls—into top-shelf pickers, even earning the IBMA’s Entertainer of the Year award and a couple of Grammy nominations for Best Bluegrass Album.
All of which is why IV is such a disappointment. What’s apparent here is an effort to move further down the progressive-bluegrass path forged by bands like Nickel Creek and the Greencards and away from the more traditional bluegrass of their earlier records. There’s nothing wrong with that approach in and of itself, and it’s unsurprising in a group as young as most of Cherryholmes are. Unlike those other bands, however, Cherryholmes’ commitment to their own original material is not an asset.
The limitations on IV are due in part to the band’s democratic approach to letting every member take his or her turn at the mike. That sort of family policy works fine when deciding whose turn it is to lick the batter, but it doesn’t end up as a good move on their records. Like all collectives, vocal (and writing) talent isn’t parceled out evenly, but in an effort to shoehorn everyone onto the tracklist, listeners have to put up with inferior material like Skip’s cloyingly repetitive “It’s Your Love”, BJ’s nearly unlistenable “Making Pretend”, and Mom’s clunky gospel-ish “Standing”.
The ringer of the family is banjoist Cia, clearly. She’s far and away the best singer of the bunch, and if every song here sounded like “How Far Will You Go”, a graceful Alison Krauss-style bluegrass ballad, IV would have been a winner. On the other hand, the most impressive track is the album-closing instrumental, “Tattoo of a Smudge”, which proves beyond a doubt that these kids can flat play. They’ve been hammering away at these banjos, mandolins, and guitars since they were single-digits old, and they prove it on this breakneck barnburner. It’s enough to make you look forward to a Cia Cherryholmes solo record, on which her family agrees to a full-time supporting role.