Toby Venables reports on Cherryholmes – Cambridge Folk Festival, 1 Aug 2008

44th Cambridge Folk Festival

It was a great way to open the first full day of the Festival. French-Canadian band Mauvais Sort had already warmed up the crowd, the weather was looking good (though we hardly dared draw attention to it), and onto Stage 1 - fresh from Nashville - stepped the archetypal bluegrass family. Yes, a real family, headed up by the ZZ Top-bearded ‘Pop' Jere (pr. ‘Jerry', on upright bass), svelte matriarch Sandy (mandolin and banjo), their two stetson-wearing sons BJ (fiddle) and Skip (guitar), and daughters Cia Liegh (banjo) and Molly Kate (fiddle). When the band started up, the youngest of these was just six.

But wait... It turns out Cherryholmes aren't originally from Nashville, but Los Angeles, didn't grow up with bluegrass at all, and only started playing music as a way of bringing the family together after the premature death of their eldest daughter (more about this in our Cherryholmes interview, coming soon). A remarkable and moving story, to be sure, but the kind of thing to raise eyebrows among the more pedantic 'folk' folk obsessed with roots credentials and ‘authenticity'.

They don't need to worry. From the first chord, Cherryholmes credentials were clear to see (and hear), and despite a momentary glitch with lead singer Cia Leigh's microphone, the audience were instantly sold on their fresh and irresistibly foot-tapping sound. Her crystal clear voice and occasional three part harmonies and rising above mandolin, banjo, guitar, fiddles and driving bass just made the most gloriously uplifting sound. It's a bluegrass thing that, I guess, you either get or you don't - and if you don't, then the world is not so rich a place. Although, as Jere was at pains to point out to me later, there actually isn't any bluegrass in O Brother Where Art Thou? (it's all Old Timey stuff) Cherryholmes epitomise exactly the vibe that so many people fell in love with watching that film. It's just good, honest, rootsy music that plays it straight and doesn't stop to regard itself, ironically or otherwise. It takes you on a ride, and it's about feeling good even if things are sad - whether you're in the band or in the audience. The gently spoken Jere summed it up: ‘We don't care how much noise you make - we're here to have a good time'.

And a good time was certainly had by all. It wasn't just about the enthusiasm, either - although that was evident enough. The playing was all of a thrilling standard, with many of the family doubling up on a variety of instruments and four of them (Cia Leigh, BJ, Molly Kate and Sandy) taking turns at lead vocals, any one of which was of sufficient quality to carry the band. Because of this, it was impossible to single out one contribution. No sooner were you falling in love with Cia Leigh's lead vocals and finger-picked banjo, or BJ's often ferocious fiddle, than Molly Kate would step up to sing and take your breath away. Jere introduced her by saying she had a ‘big voice for such a little girl', and he wasn't kidding. Though some tunes were taken at breakneck speed, as is the bluegrass tradition, there were no ragged moments here, with musicianship sacrificed to an urge to please the crowd. Musicianship kept pace all the way, even during the classic set-closer Orange Blossom Special - possibly the best rendition of this old standard I've ever heard, and among the fastest. What really stood out here was the dialogue between the two fiddles, with BJ going off into a runaway train of a solo that took us far beyond bluegrass, thundering through jazz territory and off into the realms of Hendrix.

And this is one of the major strengths of the band. They epitomise everything that's great about bluegrass, but also look beyond it. There are strong Celtic inflections in many of the tunes - indeed, Sandy launched into some step dancing early in the set (a burst of activity that would have finished off any but the fittest, made all the more remarkable by the fact that she's a mother of six and a grandmother - though you'd never know it). Later, the whole band are at it. Then there's a moment when mom and pop leave the stage, and their kids treat us to an incredibly accomplished piece of trad jazz playing in the style of Grapelli and Reinhardt. Afterwards, all six band members put down their instruments and come together to sing acapella, six part harmony, do-wap style

All in all, an astonishing and inspirational display of musical passion and versatility that, as the Orange Blossom Special echoed off into the distance, had the crowd roaring for more. This was their first time in England, Jere said; no one in front of that stage today wanted them to leave. It just goes to show that the only authenticity that matters is the heart and the soul that you put into it.

Writer: Toby Venables