When the International Bluegrass Music Association held its annual awards show in October, the biggest surprise was saved for the biggest award. The Del McCoury Band had won Entertainer of the Year for three straight years, but when the envelope was opened and "Cherryholmes" was read out, the audience leapt out of the Ryman Auditorium's curving pews in astonishment. For a genre desperate for younger blood, this sextet of parents and four children, ages 13 to 21, was just what the crowd wanted. And it was the group's new album, "Cherryholmes," its first nationally distributed disc after three self-released titles, that put them over the top.
To be honest, Cherryholmes isn't the best bluegrass band around (it's not even in the top 10, though it is in the top 20), but the band's back story is too good to resist. Jere and Sandy Cherryholmes were evangelical Christians who home-schooled their five kids, but when oldest daughter Shelly died of heart failure in 1999, they assuaged their grief by attending a Jim & Jesse bluegrass show. They were so inspired that they formed a family bluegrass group and taught themselves a tradition they barely knew. They uncovered a terrific lead singer (21-year-old Cia), a pair of promising fiddlers (13-year-old Molly and 16-year-old B.J.) and a rock-solid rhythm section (15-year-old guitarist Skip, mama mandolinist Sandy and daddy bassist Jere).
That rhythm section drives fast and hard through the traditional bluegrass tunes on the new album. Songs by Bill Monroe, Hazel Dickens, the Louvin Brothers and the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band are mixed with originals that hark back to the pre-new-grass era. Cherryholmes is always good, but it's only special when Cia takes a lead vocal in her full, throaty soprano, as on the Western swing number "Brand New Heartache." Unfortunately, she sings lead on only six of the album's 14 tracks.
-- Geoffrey Himes
Appearing Sunday at the Birchmere.