Episode 69: Darren Nicholson - The Intimacy of Bluegrass Culture

Season 3 | Episode 69
30m | Feb 8, 2023

Our special guest in this episode is Darren Nicholson.

Darren Nicholson ended his relationship with Balsam Range and has launched out in new directions with his music.

Darren shares all about his new music, what he's been up to, and how the major life-changing events in his life have shaped him into who he is today.



00:00: 27--00:00: 55 Joseph Franklyn McElroy: Hi, this is Joseph Franklyn McElroy with the Gateway to the Smokies podcast, talking about the people and culture of the Smoky Mountains where my family has been around for a couple of hundred years. And I own a business here called the Meadowlark Motel as well as a restaurant called Homecraft. And I'm pretty proud to be back in the area and meeting and greeting, and talking to some wonderful people, like my guest today, Darren Nicholson. How are you doing, Darren? 

00:00: 56--00:00: 58 Darren Nicholson:  Doing great, Joseph. Thank you so much for having me on. 

00:00: 58--00:01: 12 Joseph Franklyn McElroy: Sure. Last time I had you on the previous podcast series and I did a whole intro. But why don't you do three sentences of what you think is your highlights of your bio? 

00:01:14--00:01:20 Darren Nicholson:  I'm the world's foremost turkey hypnotist. 

00:01: 20--00:01:21  Joseph Franklyn McElroy: There you go. 

00:01:21--00:01:31 Darren Nicholson: I wear frilly leg warmers, and I have quite an impressive Beanie Baby collection. 

00:01: 31--00:01:49  Joseph Franklyn McElroy: There you go. Let me tell you, I have to look at you quite a bit because you gave me a shirt with I think it was a picture of your album of you with a rose in your teeth doing a deep sort of lunge in your underwear, right? 

00:01:50 --00:01:53 Darren Nicholson: Yes. It's a provocative pose for an early morning. 

00:01: 53--00:02:14  Joseph Franklyn McElroy:  The problem is you put that on a T-shirt that's soft that my wife grabbed it and she wears it to bed about once a week. So I got to look at your face in a bone about once a week. 

00:02:14 --00:02:58 Darren Nicholson: It's actually the evening before pill. It's not the morning-after pill. It's the evening before you put that on and make sure nothing happens in the bedroom. That was actually a graphic. A guy in Kentucky did that graphic. His name is Jonathan Carroll. He's a great graphic artist. He was nominated for an IBMA award this year for his graphic art. But he took me and it was the if you remember, the Seinfeld episode with George Costanza on the couch that pose in his underwear. It was basically kind of a spoof on that version of this. I still have a few of those left, believe it or not. I did not sell all of those. 

00:02: 58--00:03:47  Joseph Franklyn McElroy: Well, for the folks out there who might not know, which I doubt, I think everybody's going to know. But Darren is one of the foremost musicians in American and bluegrass today, and he has a solo career, and he also has been a member of several bands. Most recently, he left Balsam Range, which is one of the top bluegrass bands in the world right now. I'm assuming that you were looking to pursue new opportunities and new opera things. So what is new with your career in that regard? And I guess you have a new bluegrass booze, right? 

00:03:47 --00:06:26 Darren Nicholson: Yeah, got a brand new bluegrass record that I finished last year, actually. But the first single just came out on January 29. It's called Arkansas without you. And it's a host of hot young pickers and I'm really excited about the new bluegrass project. And so far the thing, it's got raised reviews. It's been a long time since Balsam Range. I've been in the studio, and my departure from Balsam Range is definitely not an end for me. It's a new beginning. I did 15 years. I was an original member, and I'm very grateful for those 15 years, but definitely got to a place professionally and personally where I wanted to do something different. Balsam Range, a lot of people don't realize, has always been well, not always, but for the last at least ten years has been a part-time band and so with every year, the dates have seemed to be doing less and less. And I think that's by choice. I think that's what they want to do. But they only did 30 dates last year. That was what was on the calendar, around 30 dates. And I did about 250 dates on my own, so I couldn't by the time it was the smoke cleared, I did about 290 performance dates last year. And so it got to it just got to a place in my career where instead of doing a couple of part-time things, the opportunity presented itself for me to play music full-time and focus on my full-time solo career. And to be honest with you, it was a no-brainer. I had to do it for my business, and then I had to do it for my mental health, too. It's hard juggling a schedule and setting a calendar because people would try to book me for the fall of next year. And I was constantly in limbo with their schedule and what they may or may not do. It was a difference in direction of my career. And it's nothing personal, it's nothing against them. They're going to continue doing what they do, and I wish them well. But I've got a singular focus. I'm a lot happier and it's a lot less stressful trying to juggle a bunch of things, so I'm in a much better place. 

00:06: 26--00:07:07  Joseph Franklyn McElroy:  I remember last time we talked, I listened to quite a bit of your solo stuff, right?  There were some of the American, almost country music things that I really liked a lot. And you had a little bit of sort of bluesy parts to it and some real almost southern rock rifts and things like that. I thought, wow, you should be out there doing a lot on your own, which of course you were, but I think you keep rising higher, just mean yourself, right?

 00:07:10 --00:09:58 Darren Nicholson:  That's it.  Well, that seems to be knock-on-wood, the direction things are going. And part of it is if you're always comfortable, that means you're not growing. And so I don't want to get into a place with my music where I'm doing the same sets all the time, or I'm just doing the same thing. I wanted to get outside the box, and get outside of my comfort zone. I'm writing songs. So the record you're talking about is called the man on a Mission. And that album, I had another guy produce it, Jeff Collins. And I had a whole cast of musicians that I don't normally use, and it forced me in a different direction. And that's what I wanted.  I wanted something new and organic to get me out of my comfort zone and push my own creativity and my own growth, to push my boundaries a little bit. And it was a great experience. And so with this new bluegrass record, I did the same thing, but in a different direction. I've produced several records on my own, and so I know what that sounds like. So I got a young guy, a guy I play a lot of music with named Colby Laney. He's from Marion, North Carolina, and he's probably the best acoustic guitar player on the planet. Or if he's not, he's one of the leading three. He's incredible. But I had him coproduce it with me and he brought this new energy and new life to my bluegrass recordings, and that's what I wanted. I picked all musicians I'm only 39, but all musicians who were younger than me and who were all more progressive players.  I did. And it just put me I'm still doing what I do. I play like I play, I sing like I sing. But with this other cast, with different musicians, it's going to have a different sound, and I want to keep doing that. There are musicians that I look up to, like Marty Stewart and Darryl Scott who marty Stewart will do a black gospel record, then he'll do a rock record, then he'll do a country record. But it's always good. But it's got a different feel. And in the last record he did, he had Mike Campbell from Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. He had him produce it. And I like the even for seasoned musicians who have a style and an idea of music, it's good to get out of your comfort zone. And so that's what I do. 

00:9: 59--00:10:47  Joseph Franklyn McElroy:   I agree. One of the things that surprised me in talking to you is that you really have an artistic mind. Right. There are a lot of artists that are really focused on the craft, and you are great at your craft. There's nothing to short you there. But you also get into the whole conceptual, artistic thinking as well, about the concept of what you're doing, the concept of what you're playing, like partnering with the younger players, I think it makes your work have a depth that is unique a lot of times. So I'm pretty excited about what you're doing. How do you think it'll change your live performances? 

00:10:48 --00:013:37 Darren Nicholson:   It already has. Playing with Colby and just the last few years, it's reinvigorated my interest in music. And so for years and years, I would do shows and I would just show up and play, and I would go home or go do whatever. But during the pandemic, when I had some personal changes and some lifestyle changes, I've almost had this rebirth and this fire reignited in me for music. And so I find myself every day writing songs or getting my instruments out of the case and practicing at home. Plus, I play shows five or six days a week somewhere. I'm doing a lot of traveling, a lot of playing, but I'm really inspired to get better and being with young musicians with different ideas and new ideas to kind of get me out of my thing, I think it's important.  I love that saying, if you do what you've always done, you'll have what you've always had. And so I want to get out of my comfort zone a little bit. I want to grow my business. I want to grow my music. And the biggest thing for me is not about when I say grow my music, I don't necessarily mean I want my name in the Marquee Lights, playing in front of 10,000 people or playing arenas. I want to do more shows, and I don't care if the shows are for less people. I like the intimate listening rooms, and I like smaller crowds. I've been doing a lot of solo and due at shows, and a lot of this came out of the pandemic where I was doing house concerts and these smaller things, and it just clicked with me.  I'm like, man, this is how this music was intended. When I look at your background, what I see is I see people in these mountains, on their porches and in their living rooms playing music. That's how I grew up. And then when we started doing that during the pandemic, there's a connection that happens with the music that does not happen at a big theater show or a big arena. There's a connection that happens when you can almost reach out and touch the artist with the music that's so organic. And I'm like, that is what I want to grow into. I want to be the guy who takes music everywhere.  I want to share the joy and share music and share culture, and I want to be an ambassador for Western North Carolina music and for the culture that I love and make people happy in the process. 

00:13: 38--00:14:09  Joseph Franklyn McElroy:  That's pretty fantastic. You mentioned songwriting. I saw on your Facebook the other day you had just written a song with Charles Humphrey III, who's also been on this show and is a friend of the gateway that smoked his podcast, and you sang it. It was really nice. So you're doing a lot of songwriting, and you talk about it quite a bit, but did you start playing first or songwriting first, and what inspired your interest in spotting songwriting? 

00:14:10 --00:014:18   Darren Nicholson:  Well, are you talking about, would I get interested in just performing music first or songwriting? 

00:14: 18--00:14:58  Joseph Franklyn McElroy:   Well, it's interesting the question is, I think some people in my craft, which is doing painting and things like that, some people become just interested, really drawing well, or really painting a rose and doing it really well, or other people have a purpose that they're doing it for. They want to communicate something, they want to say something and have meaning behind the craft. So what is your approach? 

00:14:59 --00:017:15   Darren Nicholson:  Well, that is my approach to songwriting is I love songs that tell stories and songs that have a deeper meaning. I don't like songs that paint pictures. Like my grandpa's cabin in the Blue Ridge Mountain hills. We played there when I was a kid, like nostalgia songs and things like that. To me, anybody can write those. But when you start getting into deeper meaning, like talking about love or hope or inspiration or a message in a song or telling a story, basically turning a three and a half minute musical piece, it's basically like a three and a half minute sitcom. I think those kind of songs connect on a deeper level, and that's usually what I'm going for. We don't always do it. Sometimes we write silly songs, sometimes you're not going to change the world with every song. But those are the songs that I like, and that's what I'm trying to do with my songwriting, is write something that's meaningful to somebody. But for the song we wrote the other day, I put a really rough video out on Facebook, and it was not the greatest singing or playing, it was just really rough and raw. And to do that, it takes vulnerability. There are some artists who really hide behind going into the recording studio, you know what I mean? Once Pro Tools and everything's run through, they sound like a million bucks. But you don't ever see them sing live. You don't ever see them. You get on there with just them and their instrument and perform. And I think there's a vulnerability about that. If you can translate it well enough to convey the emotion.  I think people are connected to the wrongness of that on a certain level. And I be dang. I put that video out and I got a call from a national touring act. That's one of the biggest acts in bluegrass. And before the day was out, they're going in next week and recording that song. 

00:17: 16--00:17:18  Joseph Franklyn McElroy: Oh, my gosh, 

00:17:18 --00:017:20   Darren Nicholson:  We wrote that song two days ago. 

00:17: 20--00:17:22  Joseph Franklyn McElroy:  That's fabulous. That's the way to do it. 

00:17:24 --00:017:38  Darren Nicholson: They said, do you have a work tape of it? And I said, well, we just wrote it like 30 minutes ago, and I had a rough work tape of it on my phone. I sent it, that and the lyrics, and they called me right back and said, we're going to cut it next week. 

00:17: 38--00:18:38 Joseph Franklyn McElroy:  Wow, fabulous. There you go. My conversations with you. We're planning a performance, and this is my little pitch for the Meadowlark I'm weaving it in here, but the Meadowlark Motel has a speakeasy called the Skylark SpeakEasy. And we've been talking to you about it. We've been doing some great musical acts there and talking to you. You really had the idea of saying, I'll do some set of music, but then I want to have conversations with the audience and then I may even jam with some people that might show up. It seems to be that this sense of community and intimacy is central to what you do and why you left Balsam Range and why you're performing and you said small clubs and things like that.  I think one of the essences of what you're trying to be is a community and having intimacy with your community. 

00:18:38 --00:020:42  Darren Nicholson:  It's an organic approach, but I think that's how you build long-term fans. And when I was talking about that vulnerability, like in that video, when you connect with people on a personal level, people would see me with Balsam range, and they only saw probably really about 5% of what I can do. If you want to get to know me and my personality and my ability, my talent, you would come to see me at a solo show or one of my other performances. And that's not for everybody. Some people don't like my music or my personality, and that's fine. They don't have to come. But for the people who do and come see me in that capacity, that's the way to build relationships. And I'm not really interested in making fans. I want to make friends and I want to perpetuate the kind of culture that I was brought up in. That very much is a sense of community. The technological world has created a place where people are missing a sense of belonging, and that's why they join these little groups, and that's why there's a division in politics and there's a division in social issues. Because anytime people are so disconnected in a way, it's way that they can feel a part of any kind of group, it's almost like, this is my family online, this is my tribe. And so I want to kind of do that with music. I want to make a place where people can come together with music.  And you don't have to worry about politics, you don't have to worry about social issues, you don't have to worry about enjoying music and just having fun. A night of entertainment. 

00:20: 42--00:22:20 Joseph Franklyn McElroy:   I grew up in the smoking mountains here, and I get it really well. Recently, my family first got the Meadowlark Motel, my grandmother, first of my parents, and they hired maid who was with us for a long time, and us kids would actually work with her and clean and became good friends. She actually sort of babysitters and things like that. And then her sister was much younger than her, came and did some things here. Well, recently her sister showed back up here to come to the restaurant, and she saw pictures on the wall community. She came to talk to me, and her sister had died.  And the fact that we're celebrating the culture that was here and is still here, she started crying, and she started talking and being part of it, and other people communicate, but even with the people that you worked with, there was a sense of community and intimacy and understanding that existed here. And I really appreciate that. You are perpetuating. I can remember the old timers would get together in a basement and have a little party, right, and bring out their instruments and sing, and then people would start clogging and dancing. That sort of is a way of life and a way of being that you felt connected. And I understand what you're talking about. Right. Do you think the way you design this program that you're going to do with Meadowlark is stemming from directly from that culture? I think it does. 

00:22:21 --00:023:45  Darren Nicholson:   It does. Yeah. And that's what I want people to get to know me especially. There are fans of Balsam Range who are like, why in the world would you leave why would you leave that band when they seem to be doing all these things? And it's like, well, this is a good opportunity. If people have questions about my career, like what I want to do, why I want to play music, why I want to do more shows, or why I want to do the things that I want to do, I can explain it to them, and then they don't have to keep guessing. I don't expect questions about Balsam Range, but they can ask me questions about my childhood, how I got into music, the music business, instruments, whatever.  I think when you have an evening like that with people, it's different than just buying a ticket, sitting in a seat, watching somebody play for an hour, and then going home and be like, hey, that was good. There's a connectivity that I think goes along with the music that is just as important. 

00:23: 46--00:24:17 Joseph Franklyn McElroy:   Well, we've been having some weekly jams here on Sundays, five to seven people listening, and I'm hoping some of them old-time players we had this last Sunday old time, like 70 something, 75 something people show up and just started clogging, and they're, you know, singing and playing. I hope some of them come and take you up on the offer to jam with them at the end. That would be a major, I think, cultural moment. 

00:24: 18 --00:024:45  Darren Nicholson:  So that's what it's all about. And I remember, like, players that I looked up to and players that I wanted to play. I remember when people like Steve Sutton or Mark Pruitt or Arvill Freeman were like, hey, man, get your manly. And Ralph Lewis would always take his Manlyn off and hand it to me, and that was a big deal. He's like, get up and play one with the band that meant so much to me, to a young budding musician. And it's like, man, that was a self-esteem builder. That was a motivator. And I also remember the musicians that were kind of like, who made me feel less than, too, you know what I mean? Who made me feel like, hey, you're not good enough to play with me or don't talk to me. And I do not want to perpetuate and I don't want to come across with that kind of attitude because I have zero tolerance for that. And I'm sure I've probably people the wrong way if I've been in a bad mood after a show or something. I've not lived my life perfectly, but I've never intentionally ever wanted to make someone feel bad or not make someone feel welcome. People remember how you make them feel. I love that. I love that about my musical heroes, Steve and Ralph. Those are the kind of things that I don't want to die. These old times. 

00:25: 46--00:26:18 Joseph Franklyn McElroy: That's right. The reason I'm here, too, is because I don't want that culture to die. I'm trying to do my part also, my little tiny part, to try to perpetuate and progress it. It doesn't have to be these mummified things. It can be a thing that grows right. And I'm glad that you are helping grow that now. I was trying to keep this to about 30 minutes, so we're about at that time, what do you want to tell people? Shout out to people to find out more or look you up or what do you want to tell them? 

00:26: 18 --00:027:29  Darren Nicholson:  Well, a couple of things going on. I've been working really hard on doing a benefit. It's going to do a lot to help the community. The Steve Sutton Fest is going to happen June 3rd at Silverado in Black Mountain, and proceeds are going to go to Haywood County schools, Buckham county schools, and the IBMA trust fund. That's going to be on June 3 at Silverado with Perpetual Groove being the headliner. But then also I have a brand new single out. It's called Arkansas without you. You can stream it anywhere. Spotify pandora apple Music Arkansas Without You I've got a brand new bluegrass record out with songs that I've written. And if you go to my website dear Nicholson Net, I've got about 120 dates on the books for next year and going to be going all across the country and probably we're going to do over 200 when the smoke clears the road dates, and going to be traveling out further, doing a tour out west. Going to Canada. It's a really exciting time, so I encourage people to come out and see some live music. 

00:27: 30--00:29:00 Joseph Franklyn McElroy:  Well, thank you very much for being on the show. I might mention that Darren also plays a lot here in the Smoky, especially in Hayward County. So if you can't find a place in the country, just come here and visit and stay at the Meadowlark Motel he might be here or he'll be some other great place here in town. There are a lot of wonderful music venues and things in Hayward County that are worthwhile and have a lot of authenticity. Right. Haywood County has not become a dramatically corporate tourist county. It's still pretty authentic in terms of the way of life and how people live here and how people enjoy music. So come on down to hear them out, either on the road or here. I'll just shout out if you can find out more about the Meadowlark Motel@ and if you go slash homecraft, you'll find out about a restaurant, which is almost it's a mountain heritage food with a twist. My wife is from Trinidad, and we do a lot of Caribbean Trinidad spices and things like tomato gravy or cream corn. We just twisted a little bit. But you still taste the authenticity of these mountains in there. People are just raving about it. And we're getting great reviews online and some newspapers are great. And when you come here, you're going to get some Darren. All right. I hope I'll get a testimonial out of that. 

00:29:00 --00:029:01  Darren Nicholson: I like your haircut.

00:29: 02--00:29:57 Joseph Franklyn McElroy:  It's the perfect haircut. The Gateway to Smokies podcast exists on It has its own Facebook page, but all the episodes, the previous ones had a couple of different series, longer episodes, but these are going to be shorter but more fun episodes. And you can go there and find more about everything in the Smokies because it's also a great site for directories of things like places to stay, lodging all over the Smokies, not just Haywood County, and what to do, and attractions and things like that. So thank you all for listening. This has been the gateway to the Smokies podcast. You can go to, Gatewaytothesmokiespodcast, or you can go to to find out more about this. And I'll see you all next week. 

00:29:59 --00:030:00 Hey, thanks for having me. Bye. 

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