Cherryholmes: A Bluegrass Family Affair The family band Cherryholmes is raking in accolades. They scored an upset at last year's International Bluegrass Music Awards, and their self-titled album is up for a Grammy Award on Feb. 8.
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Cherryholmes: A Bluegrass Family Affair

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Cherryholmes: A Bluegrass Family Affair


Now the story of a family from California with the unlikely surname Cherryholmes that's taken the world of bluegrass by storm. This fall the relative newcomers upset such veterans as Alison Krauss and the Del McCrory band to become the International Bluegrass Music Association's entertainers of the year. Now Cherryholmes, as the band calls itself, is up for a Grammy. Craig Havighurst of member station WPLN reports from Nashville.


Backstage at the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville, musicians mingle and warm up as clog dancers stroll by.

(Soundbite of tap shoes, people talking)

HAVIGHURST: A family of six in coordinated Western dress prepares to take country music's most coveted stage.

Unidentified Man: They did the TV spot earlier this evening here at the Grand Ole Opry and it's wonderful to introduce them to you here right now. Say hello, everybody, to a family group, Mom and Dad and all the kids, Cherryholmes right here!

(Soundbite of scream)

(Soundbite of Cherryholmes performing)

HAVIGHURST: Teen-agers Molly and B.J. Cherryholmes dig into their fiddles as mother Sandy, the band's mandolin player, steps to the microphone.

(Soundbite of song)

CHERRYHOLMES: (Singing) I went across to Switzerland where all the yodelers be to try to learn the yodel with a yodel-odel-ee.

HAVIGHURST: Standing behind the upright dais, father Jere looks like a 19th-century mountain man with a gray beard that cascades to his belly. But this isn't the picture of Appalachian tradition that it appears to be. The Cherryholmes story begins a world away on the streets of 1950s Los Angeles.

Mr. JERE CHERRYHOLMES: We carried knives. I don't think any of us would have had enough nerve to stab somebody.

HAVIGHURST: Jere says that by the time he was 10 years old, he was in a gang. Offstage in his customary bib overalls, you can see the tattoos that cover his well-muscled arms, his badges from a startling life story.

Mr. CHERRYHOLMES: Probably if I'd have stayed in that lifestyle, it probably would have evolved into something a lot more serious, but it was more of just a tough-guy thing, all the grease on your hair and all that junk, but my mom remarried when I was about nine and it took my dad a couple of years to straighten me out. But, praise God, he did.

HAVIGHURST: When Jere went straight, he went all the way, joining the Navy and training for its elite SEAL program at the tail end of the Vietnam War. He returned to Los Angeles, joined a church, married Sandy and had six children. After one of their daughters suffered brain damage from a post-operative stroke in 1991, Sandy began homeschooling the kids.

(Soundbite of Cherryholmes performing)

CHERRYHOLMES: (Singing a cappella) I know the angels soon will call her to that home beyond the sea and then I'll be so sad and lonesome with no one to sing for me.

HAVIGHURST: Daughter Shelly died in 1999. As a spirit-lifter, the family took a road trip to a bluegrass festival. It opened up a world they'd not known. The music became a calling for Jere and Sandy and an extension of home school for their children. Molly shelved classical violin aspirations for the fiddle. Daughter Cia had an instrument assigned.

CIA: My dad said, `We need a banjo player and you're gonna be playing, and you're gonna be playing in just a few months on stage.' And I knew I'd be up there whether I could play or not so it was a real motivator to learn quickly.

HAVIGHURST: That she did. Last year the 22-year-old was named the top banjo player by the Society for the Preservation of Bluegrass Music. She's also a critically acclaimed singer and the band's chief songwriter.

(Soundbite of Cherryholmes performing)

CHERRYHOLMES: (Singing) Trying to move on; it ain't comin' very easy. Seems I'm standing with my back against the wall, thinking of the life that I've chosen, how it's left me trying to recall a love that's too far gone. How long will you haunt my memory? How long will your memory trouble my mind? How long will it take for my heart not to ache? I'm dying for a love I left behind.

HAVIGHURST: Both Jere and Sandy believe that kind of growth doesn't come easily. Sandy says it's the product of a home where expectations are high and where music was mandatory.

Ms. SANDY CHERRYHOLMES: There was discipline. There had to be. If you take the standpoint `Well, I'll let them do whatever they want. If it isn't fun, I won't make 'em do it,' the kid won't do anything, and that's why most people don't play is because as children their parents never made them.

HAVIGHURST: Some fans have had questions about the forced music lessons.

Mr. CHERRYHOLMES: I've had several people tell me `Well, I don't want to make my kids do it 'cause they'll resent it when they get older.' You know what? The truth of the matter is your kids will come up and say, `Thank you for investing the time with me and making me do what I didn't want to do and got me over the hump until I saw the value of it.'

(Soundbite of Cherryholmes performing)

HAVIGHURST: Skip, the band's 17-year-old guitarist, says the decision to become professional was not a command from the top.

SKIP: When we started out, every step of the way Dad would ask us `Is this something you want to do?' And it just got bigger and bigger and bigger and he still kept asking us, and now it's sort of at a point where it's too late to turn around and go back.

(Soundbite of Cherryholmes performing)

HAVIGHURST: The family lived in a working-class Latino neighborhood. Isolated by language and culture, they dug deep into the history of bluegrass. Eventually they graduated from their living room to local shows to festivals. Word of their energy and drive spread fast. Bluegrass star Rhonda Vincent says she became a fan on first listen.

Ms. RHONDA VINCENT: When I first saw them at Silver Dollar City in Branson, Missouri, I was very--it's, like, `Wow, I haven't seen a group that excites me like this in a long time.'

HAVIGHURST: So much so that Vincent asked about recording what turned out to be one of 10-year-old Molly's first original fiddle tunes.

Ms. VINCENT: I went to Sandy, I said, `I love that song. It's perfect for thea project I'm working on.' And she said, `Well, I homeschool the kids. And I gave them all an assignment to write a song, and this is the one Molly wrote.'

(Soundbite of Cherryholmes performing)

HAVIGHURST: Rhonda Vincent wasn't alone in her enthusiasm. Country and bluegrass star Ricky Skaggs signed them to his record label. The resulting CD is up for best bluegrass album at the Grammy Awards. The bluegrass establishment has embraced Cherryholmes not just because of its talent but because the band draws so much from the music's traditional founders: The Stanley Brothers, Bill Monroe and even mountain feminist Hazel Dickens.

(Soundbite of Cherryholmes performing)

CHERRYHOLMES: (Singing) Well, my ...(unintelligible) do most any day. But I wonder will my hair be all turned gray before he turns that dollar loose and I get my dues, and lose a little bit of them working-girl blues.

HAVIGHURST: Cherryholmes has defied expectations in its chosen music. Most bluegrass artists come from the South and are raised around their instruments. Most bands with four years on the road are just starting to get recognized. But the family Cherryholmes seems intent on doing just about everything on its own and in its own way.

Mr. CHERRYHOLMES: We're sort of what you would call survivalists in life. We just take our own natural resources and do it ourself. We're not the kind of people that breaks down by the side of the road and calls somebody and pays a jillion dollars because we can't do it ourself.

HAVIGHURST: These days the Cherryholmes tour bus is headquartered in Goodlettsville, a Nashville suburb, where the family moved two years ago. But it's rarely in the driveway. The Cherryholmes family is on a stage most nights of the year. For NPR News, I'm Craig Havighurst in Nashville.

(Soundbite of Cherryholmes performing)

KAST: Hear songs from Cherryholmes' album at our Web site,



KAST: Scott Simon returns next week; I'm Sheilah Kast.

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