Bluegrass on steroids

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Cherryholmes; sweet family harmony comes to USCL on Saturday

By Greg Summers

Music has a way of lifting your spirits.

Just ask Jere and Sandy Cherryholmes.

In 1999, their oldest daughter, Shelly, 20, died in her sleep from respiratory failure.

To cope with the loss, Jere, a carpenter for the Los Angeles County school system and Sandy, who was homeschooling their children, Cia, B.J., Skip and Molly Kate, took the family to a nearby bluegrass festival.

There – while listening to Jim & Jesse and the Virginia Boys – the Cherryholmes found healing.

They also found inspiration and a new calling on their lives.

On the way home that night, Jere came to the realization that time is indeed God’s greatest gift. He told Sandy it was time to put their family first by doing something special with their kids. It was then and there they decided to start their own bluegrass band, just for fun.

They decided who would play what instrument and Sandy, a church accompanist, started giving the kids music lessons.

By 2005, with their genetically linked harmonies and crisp, clean sound, Cherryholmes was named Entertainers of the Year by the International Bluegrass Music Association.

Now, some 11 years later, the couple who put their family first has become the first family of bluegrass. Cherryholmes is the exception to the rule that it takes a lifetime to get good at the fleet finger-picking bluegrass requires.

And their brand of what Jere calls “bluegrass on steroids” is coming here Saturday to perform on the Bundy Auditorium stage at the University of South Carolina at Lancaster as part of the 2009-10 See Lancaster SC Performing Arts Series.

A multi Grammy-nominated band, Cherryholmes performs more than 100 dates a year, including regular slots at the Grand Ole Opry and Dollywood. Cherryholmes has been featured on the FOX News network, National Public Radio and the Gaither Homecoming videos.

They unapologetically sing about God, war, murder, love, heartbreak and the rigors of everyday people living everyday lives in no particular order.

 Jere plays stand-up bass; Sandi, mandolin and guitar; Cia plays banjo; Skip plays guitar. B.J. and Molly Kate, a southpaw, play twin fiddles.

The accolades and awards that Cherryholmes have garnered, Jere said, are deceiving.  Their success is rooted in hard work.

“It hasn’t been easy,” Jere said. “It’s been said that God supplies the talent and we have to supply the effort.

“They’re all growing up on us,” Jere said of his children. “Some of them are engaged and Molly just bought her first car this week. She’ll be 18 in May.”

The Cherryholmes' sound is a unique mixture of bluegrass, jazz and Celtic music. But it is constantly evolving. There are also influences of old-time rhythm and blues and rock ’n’ roll in Cherryholmes songs, hence Jere’s “bluegrass on steroids” moniker.

Their song, “This Is My Son,” charted as a country single in 2009 and received limited airplay. Written by Cia, the slow, emotional ballad is about a mother who sends her son off to war. But with its pointed dual message, Jere said some radio stations wouldn’t play it.

“That’s too bad,” he said. “We’re still going to point the message where it needs to be pointed.”

Regardless of influence, tempo or subject matter, Jere said you can count on every Cherryholmes song to be loaded with power.

“Everybody has different abilities and qualities,” he said. “The trick is being able to harness all of them under one yoke and getting everybody pulling in the same direction.”

Cherryholmes was in the Skaggs Family recording studio last week in Henderson, Tenn., recording the vocal tracks for their upcoming release. That project, Jere said, is almost complete.

“You try to pick familiar themes,” Jere said. “But as the kids have grown older, they find different subject matter through their own feelings and observations of life. When I sit back and listen to what they’re coming up with, sometimes as a parent, I just get beside myself. I try to figure out where they got it from. It has to be God; it sure wasn’t me.”  

And just like their music, stage performances are a non-stop team effort. Although they aren’t members of the Grand Ole Opry, Jere said the family recently learned it holds the record for the most Opry appearances by a non-member. These days, along Nashville’s Music Row, Cherryholmes is often mentioned as the stage act that other musicians enjoying seeing.

That notion, Jere said, was obvious at a Jan. 2 performance at the Ryman Auditorium.

“We got up to do our thing and decided that too many slow songs had been played that night by everybody,” he said. “We signed off with ‘Orange Blossom Special,’ done our way with the twin fiddles. Since I play bass, I’m at the back. I turn around and look to see all the Opry members, guests, the Opry squaredancers and the staff band piled up on the stage wings watching us. We got the first Grand Ole Opry standing ovation of 2010 that night.

“That was humbling,” he said. “It was pretty cool.”

Want to go?

WHO: Cherryholmes

WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 23

WHERE: University of South Carolina at Lancaster’s Bundy Auditorium

HOW MUCH: Tickets ($50 each) are available at the See Lancaster office inside the Springs House, 201 W. Gay St. Tickets can also be purchased online at plittle@lancastercity.sc.com.

INFORMATION: (803) 286-1145 or (803) 285-6207 (fax)