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Tall Pines Reaching the Sky: Interview with Jere Cherryholmes

Nikki Tranter

'I tell people, when they talk about how much they grow on their instruments, its like watching them grow physically.' Cherryholmes patriarch, Jere Cherryholmes, talks to PopMatters about his talented family.

When the Cherryholmes clan made the decision to take their musical act on the road, they had no idea that in just a few short years they'd be International Bluegrass Music Association Entertainers of the Year. Patriarch and upright bass player, Jere Cherryholmes was convinced that if the band were leaving the ceremony winners, they'd do so with the Emerging Artist honor. The Grascals got that, leaving Cherryholmes to collect the big one. "I was in a state of shock," Jere told PopMatters. And after just one major release, and at least four members who first even considered their instruments little more than five years ago, he had every reason to be.

One listen to the band's self-titled Cherryholmes, though, and the IBMA's decision to bypass handing the band -- including Jere and wife Sandy Lee and their kids, Cia Leigh, BJ, Skip, and Molly Kate -- the more traditional "upcoming" award is entirely justified. The album is an inspired exercise that blends smart original tracks with classic covers, ripping tunes with subtle instrumental pieces. This combination of elements is certainly a reaction to the band's fresh awareness to the genre, but because of it's maturity and daring, Cherryholmes sounds like the work of veterans. (The band produced three albums prior to this one, self-produced Still a Little Rough Around the Edges in 2001, Dressed for Success in 2002, and Bluegrass Vagabonds in 2003.)

How did they managed to become so skilled, so quickly? Jere credits his family's belief in God, but wherever the gifts came from, they came in showers. Cia Leigh, for instance, barely out of her teens, writes songs that recall the origins of bluegrass, steeped in bucolic sentiment that betray in an almost otherworldly way the woman's youth and inexperience. Check out "Makin' Time":

"A lot of stops along the way,
So many country towns,
I found a stretch of backwoods,
Where a man could settle down,
I've seen the tall pines reach the sky,
And cactus way out west,
But an 18-wheeler makin' time,
Is what I love the best."

With her brother BJ on vocal, it's a song that could easily have come from Earl Scruggs or Doc Watson. Similar tunes are all over the record, including Cia Leigh's "How Long", Molly Kate and BJ's "Coastline", and a thrilling song of redemption and regret, "Red Satin Dress", penned by Cia Leigh, Jere, and Sandy Lee.

Jere Cherryholmes knows his family is loaded with ability. It's his great pleasure, as they continue their busy touring schedule, to let their talent take them where it will. "Everything has gone so quickly and to be at this pinnacle, so to speak, winning an award like Entertainer of the Year within the industry," he said, "it basically means we have a great tremendous responsibility now to live up to that."

PopMatters spoke to Jere about that responsibility, as well as awards, shows, and the joys of on-the-road parenting.

PopMatters: How does it feel to be IBMA's Entertainers of the Year?

Jere Cherryholmes: That was absolutely awesome. It certainly wasn't something that we expected. We were surprised enough that we made the list. We were sitting at the awards ceremony; we were up for three awards. The first one to go by was Female Vocalist of the Year, and my daughter didn't really expect to win that because of the people that were in it, but she was honored to be a part of that group. The next one up was Emerging Artist of the Year, which we were nominated for, and we kind of felt that if we had a shot at anything that was it. Because we, so far, I guess we haven't emerged yet. And when the Grascals got that one, I turned over to Sandy and said, "Well, we're done". You know, if you can't emerge, how in the world are you going to win the highest award they have? So, when [mandolin player] Sam Bush made the announcement that we had won Entertainer of the Year, I was in a state of shock. Molly, our youngest daughter, about jumped up and just about touched the ceiling. And Cia, our other daughter, said that she thought she was screaming loud until she heard Molly screaming.

PM: Does it make you think people in your industry already view you as an established act -- that you've missed that emerging part and skipped straight to full credibility?

JC: That's kind of what it said. The Emerging Artist award is reserved for a band that is up and coming. I guess getting the Entertainer of the Year award says we've already got there.

PM: When you started out, did you envision this level of success?

JC: We've always done everything fast. We play fast; that youthful energy just comes across that way. Success is not something I really thought about when we first got going. When we first got playing we weren't even really trying to play as an established, on the stage-type band, we were originally playing together just to be together. Within four months from the time we even started playing, we got hired for our first job. Within about six months we were getting hired for festivals and within about two years we were on the doorstep of having to make a decision of either going at it full time or cutting way back, because it was hard to juggle my job and trying to work festivals.

We were limited by how far we could go out, being out in California there wasn't much to draw from in terms of being able to play. There certainly isn't enough out there in the west to make a living at it. But, because of our situation, not dealing with all adults who are already established in their adult lives, we felt that we were either going to have to go at it full time or back off a bit and let the kids cut loose and proceed on like a normal family, raising kids and letting them go on to become adults. So we came at a crucial point the end of 2001 and we sat down and talked about it and formulated a plan. We all went first with a guarded sense that it might not work and we'd have to go back and establish housekeeping over on our property in Arizona, but it worked.

PM: How has it been for you to witness your kids' musical progression in this short time? It strange to ask, but how did they do that? Cia's songs, for instance, have the makings of folk standards. How does a young woman write with such wisdom so early in her career?

JC: I don't know how she writes the stuff that she writes. She has written or co-written the majority of the original [tracks] on the album, and all of them are so mature. She's just a very talented songwriter and, actually, all of them are so gifted that the only thing that I can say is that I have to give credit to God, because you can't just will something like that. There has to be something inside of them. They've even grown in leaps and bounds since the album came out. I saw growth in them this past week. I heard them do things on the stage that I've never heard them do before. I've heard them pull tones out of the fiddle that I haven't heard before. The ferocity of all the music is growing even greater.

PM: Do you think it has to do with them being entrenched in this life and this style of music? If they were going to school and learning music in a more traditional manner, they likely wouldn't have developed this rapidly, right?

JC: Right. I think that has absolutely everything to do with being, as you say, entrenched. They're living it now. [Music is] our main focus in life now; everything revolves around our music. You know, if you have a band made up of adults, they'd have other families and they'd have children and they'd have other concerns. But our kids, other than their schooling, their lives are basically made up of the music and traveling and playing this venue and playing that venue and all working towards a common goal. And I think that that, in itself, makes them even ... their abilities can grow even more.

PM: Has living and playing together strengthened the family?

JC: Well, we had a pretty strong family before. Our daughter [Shelly, lovingly memorialized on the album] died back in 1999. She was near death in 1991 after a major surgery -- at that time we made a conscious decision that the family, and spending time with the family, was going to come before careers, before other interests, before other obligations. So, at the time of her death, our family was really close. But it's even grown much, much closer now. The kids are each others' best friends. They think alike -- it's a real joke when we go to a restaurant, because as the waitress goes around the table, everybody will invariably order almost exactly the same thing. It's really interesting to see. They have different personalities. Each one of them has a distinct personality that's unlike the others, but there's a common thread that flows through all of them. And when we play together as a family, there's a certain amount of synergistic energy that comes out of that.

PM: How have you noticed the kids changing as they've been learning their instruments?

JC: Of course, you're going to see your kids change over time anyway and mature and grow. I tell people, when they talk about how much they grow on their instruments, it's like watching them grow physically. Little more than a year ago, my youngest son was probably topping in at about five foot six. Then, over the year, he shot up to six foot two. They always say they grow like weeds. That's the same thing with their musical ability. It grows so fast that people that see them on a more occasional basis -- they'll see them play at a festival and then won't see them again for two or three months -- they can't believe how much they've improved on the instruments and how much more is coming out. It's interesting, too, that they do it at different times. Just like they have growth spurts in a physical way, they have growth spurts on their instruments as well.

PM: Are you getting a different perspective on watching your kids grow up -- not having the traditional mum and dad and kids, there must be something exciting about that?

JC: Yeah, it's true. We feel a tremendous sense of guarding and guiding our children as they grow. Helping them to make the right decisions. And, being involved as intricately as we are on a day to day basis in all aspects of their lives is totally different from a normal family, as you said, with mom and dad either working or the kids go to school -- they come home and they have all the other influences. We're the main influences and that's why it's so important, the type of guidance we give them. You get to have even more insight into their lives, and what they're all about.

PM: Especially when they're writing such introspective songs about themselves and their personalities -- stuff kids don't normally share with parents when they're young.

JC: That's right. Cia writes songs about all these guys who do the wrong thing to a girl and she's never had a boyfriend or been on a date or anything.

PM: Then it's instinctive for her?

JC: Yeah. My kids like to read classic literature, too. I think reading classic literature has given her a broader understanding of life. Because of that, she's able to write from the point of view of someone who hasn't yet experienced those things, but still understands them.

PM: Do the kids listen to contemporary pop music or just bluegrass?

JC: They don't listen to contemporary [pop] music. We just did an in-store show at a record store up in Lexington, Kentucky. The storeowner said [to the band], before you leave go around the store and pick out some CDs if you want them. And what they came up with was Michael Buble. They came up with Stefan Grappelli and Django Reinhart. They came up with some Frank Sinatra, and, I think, Phil Collins. Who else did they come up with? Oh, an old Moody Blues album. The storeowner came to me and said he was surprised at the eclectic tastes of the children. They listen to classical music, they listen to show tunes, they listen to stuff that is kind of highbrow, I would say. [Laughs]. Swing music� they don't listen to any contemporary [pop] music.

PM: Did you and your wife grow up in musical families?

JC: No, not really. Not that there was an absence of music around when we grew up. But it was more from a listener's standpoint and just things that, kind of, normally happen -- Sandy's father had a guitar around and played around on it a bit; we had piano when I was a kid, and my folks sang in a choir. We had that kind of music around. And, of course, you get into music at school. Sandy's was pretty extensive. She was in the high school band and played the clarinet. She also was able to study some other instruments as well. She was a classically trained vocalist and understood a lot of music theory, whereas as I was just typical hack rock 'n' roll player in the '60s, [when] everybody had garage and everybody had a band in their garage.

The music that we have now, I believe, was a gift. We weren't prepared for it. We didn't grow up in Kentucky or in Virginia and have grandparents playing fiddles and dancing and all that kind of stuff. We had to have a real desire to have that and open ourselves up to it.

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