Powered by a new album, Cherryholmes will be facing a touring schedule that takes the six-member family band to Japan for the Country Gold Festival, up and down the West Coast and back to the East for a flurry of dates, all before Christmas. While on the California leg of the tour, the band will tape a special for PBS, details of which are still being worked out.
All this musical razzle dazzle supports Black and White: Cherryholmes II, the band’s fifth album overall and its second album for Skaggs Family Records. Various members of the band wrote nine of the album’s 14 songs. Ben Isaacs, of the famed Isaacs family produced it, and his sister, Sonya, wrote the CD’s title cut. In a nod to the past, Cherryholmes has also included the Lester Flatt classic, “I’ll Never Shed Another Tear.”
Speaking to CMT.com from Dollywood, Jere Cherryholmes, the patriarch of the pack, explains how the album came together.
“We write songs and pick songs because we like them and because they reflect stylistically the way we interpret music,” he says. “Then we have different people in the band audition for the part of lead singer [for each song]. We’ll pick a song, and we may have three different people sing it when we’re practicing it, and [that way] we find the person who’s best suited for that style and for the range it’s in.”
There’s absolutely no sense of competition in these early tryouts, Cherryholmes insists. “Everybody in the band wants what’s best for the band.”
Once the parts are assigned, the band moves to the demo stage. “We’ll demo maybe 20 or 25 songs,” Cherryholmes continues, “stuff that we’ve written, stuff other people have sent us that we like. Then we send them over to Skaggs [Family Records] for them to listen to. They’ll send back recommendations [and] we go through them. Sometimes we’ll go counter to what they recommend.
“Then we get together with the producer. The only thing musically that the producer does with us is, after we pick the songs and work on the arrangements, he’ll listen and think of some fine points. One of the things we do that most bands don’t is that when we write a song, we start including it in our shows before we record it. We road test them. We’ve actually cast some of [them] aside because they didn’t go over as well or didn’t get the response that we felt was [sufficient] for something we wanted to put on a record.”
Cherryholmes’ rise has been meteoric. Up until 1999, the three youngest members of the family had never even picked up a musical instrument. Yet in 2005, the band won the International Bluegrass Music Association’s entertainer of the year prize.
The band was up for the same award this year and last but lost out both times to the Grascals. “Just being nominated,” Cherryholmes observes, “kind of proves to us that [winning the honor] wasn’t a fluke and that somebody out there felt we deserved it.”
After their daughter Shelly Anna died in 1999, Cherryholmes and his wife Sandy corralled the rest of the family into playing bluegrass as a kind of common therapy. Although the parents were playing music in their Los Angeles church — Sandy on piano and Jere on guitar and bass — they were not aiming to perform professionally. Jere worked as a carpenter.
It came as a surprise, Cherryholmes admits, that the children had real music talent. When they began playing, Cia was 15, B.J. 11, Skip 9 and Molly 7. “They were just kids,” Cherryholmes says with a sense of wonder. “Nobody in the group has ever taken any [formal] lessons on anything. Neither my wife nor I had enough experience on acoustic instruments to teach them to play the way that they play [now]. But we got them started.”
His children developed into the formidable pickers they are today, says Cherryholmes, simply by playing together incessantly. “At first we just played for our own enjoyment. We never started off to be a band. We were really just jamming in the living room in L.A., of all places, just because it was fun.”
Cherryholmes concedes that he and his wife forced the kids into giving music a try. “We didn’t really leave it up to them. We made it a part of their home-school curriculum. When they were young like that, if you asked the boys what they wanted to play, it was usually drums. Cia was content to play the guitar. [She's now a prize-winning banjoist.] Molly wanted to play the violin. We started trying to get her to play it right-handed, but she didn’t take to it. So I switched the strings around so she could play it left-handed. It just kind of took off.”
The band got its first job offer in July 1999, Cherryholmes remembers. It grew from an appearance at a resort in California. “We knew only about nine songs — enough to do half an hour. The idea was that we would play in one area for half an hour, and then we’d pick our instruments up and walk to another part and play again. So we figured we had it covered. It turned out that everybody who was at the first performance followed us to the second one. Before we knew it, we had the whole park following us around like we were pied pipers.”
The resort owners were so impressed that they booked the band to play — this time on stage rather than in transit — every Saturday from Labor Day through Thanksgiving. “We scrounged and did everything we could to entertain these people,” Cherryholmes says. “That’s where we utilized the Irish step dancing. Sandy had taken an interest in it a couple of years earlier and taught the kids to do it for a [physical education] class. So I’d play the harmonica — play ‘Buffalo Gal’ — and they’d get out and dance. … By the time the three months were up, we were drawing crowds of about a thousand people.”
The band has gone through several name changes — and for several reasons. At first, it called itself Spirit High Ridge, a moniker it took from the road leading to a 40-acre tract of remote family property in the White Mountains of Arizona.
“Then when we started getting hired by some promoters,” Cherryholmes says, “they kind of halfway refused to use that name because they wanted the fact that we were a family to be reflected. I guess for better publicity. So without us even knowing it, they were listing us as ‘the Cherryholmes Family Band.’ I think it was on the last album we recorded before the two with Ricky [Skaggs] that I made a conscious effort to change the name to simply ‘Cherryholmes’ — to basically bypass the stigma that’s sometimes attached to family bands.”
That stigma, he says, arises when people are brought into a band just because they are family members and not because they’re good musicians. “I thought our family was very deep with talent,” he says.
Among the people to whom Cherryholmes dedicates its new album is the late Jimmy Martin, the feisty, self-anointed King of Bluegrass.
“We never got to play a show with Jimmy,” says Cherryholmes. “But when we came [to Tennessee] in 2003 and started playing this tour we’re still on, we happened to get the opportunity to go meet him at his house. He took to us pretty well, and we took to him. Over the next two years, we visited him a lot of times.
“We brought our instruments over there and played music with him and went out to eat with him. He called on the phone quite frequently. … Then he got real sick [with cancer], and we’d call on him. His last Christmas was the Christmas of 2004. He called on Christmas morning and asked us what we were doing. We said we were just going to have Christmas dinner, that we didn’t have any relatives out here. So he said, ‘Well, I’m here by myself. Why don’t you come over and visit me?’ So we went and spent the day with him and ate pecan pie and ice cream and talked. …
“The last time we saw him was about four days before he passed [on May 14, 2005]. We hadn’t taken our instruments over that time because we thought he’d be kind of tired and wouldn’t be up to it. But he asked us to sing for him, and we sang a couple a cappella. One of them, he really liked, and he teared up pretty good. Before we left, he asked me if we would sing that at his funeral. … So we did.”
That song was the Louvin Brothers’ “No One to Sing for Me,” which Cherryholmes recorded on its first Skaggs Family album.
Diverging from its traditional heavy bluegrass festival schedule, the band played a lot of theaters and performing arts centers this year and looks to playing even more next year. That suits the elder Cherryholmes just fine.
“We actually don’t have a home,” he reports. “We haven’t had a house for about five years now. We live on the bus on the road. That’s about 300 days out of the year. [Sometimes] we’ll park the bus in my friend’s driveway in Goodlettsville [just outside of Nashville]. He has a little two-bedroom bachelor flat on top of his garage, and we let the kids go up there. … Sandy and I have always slept in the bus.”