ARCHIVE: The Family That Plays Together


Road scholars: BJ, Skip, Cia Leigh, Molly Kate, Sandy and Jere Cherryholmes bring their family bluegrass band to Monmouth University’s Pollak Theatre on Friday, April 3.

(First published on Red Bank oRBit April 1, 2009)

Looking at the family named Cherryholmes — two sons, two daughters and two parents who also happen to comprise the band named Cherryholmes — you’d almost be tempted to judge them as some kind of product of the Nashville music-biz machine; a high-concept creation from a town where you often need a gimmick to rise above the promotional static.

Listening to Cherryholmes, however, puts to rest any thought of this act being all hat and no cattle. This bunch is one seriously skilled group of musicians, playing traditional bluegrass with passion and precision and nuance and mystery and all those things so sorely lacking in most chart-topping C&W.

The script would therefore dictate that the Cherryholmes clan must be part of a multi-generational musical tradition, carrying the lore of the mist-shrouded hills and dark hollers of their native Appalachia to the theme-park, shopping-mall world beyond.

Wrong again, Watson. While the ‘holmes are indeed kinfolk, their provenance is about as far from the Nashville-beaten track as is possible — a little bend in the road called East L.A. It’s a place where bearded, tattooed carpenter Jere Cherryholmes and his wife Sandra, still reeling from the death of their eldest daughter Shelly at age 20, gathered their four surviving children together and initiated a little therapeutic family project — a bit of family music time, done with an eye and an ear toward working through some difficult feelings, maintaining faith and just restoring some smiles to the household.

That was ten years ago — ten years, countless thousands of road miles, three albums and a Grammy nomination, to be precise. While Jere Cherryholmes has had plenty of time to think about these developments behind the wheel of the tour bus all those hours, he’s the first to marvel at the divine turn of events that brought the brood from their most despairing times to the cusp of household-name status.

Ma and Pa Kettle they ain’t, but bassman/ bus driver/ emcee and self-described “strategist” Jere (say it like Jerry) is equally matched here by Sandy — player of mandolin and claw-hammer banjo, lead yodeler, Irish step dance choreographer and home-school teacher. Their kids — raised on public-school curriculum, Bible study, vintage country and Golden Age radio shows — are fiddler BJ, guitar ace Skip, fiddle prodigy Molly Kate and banjo-picking Cia Leigh, whose singing and songwriting skills have evolved to the point where she’s emerged as the band’s logical frontperson. Everyone sings, and reportedly nobody got to choose the instrument they play.

Red Bank oRBit spoke to the family patriarch on the eve of a tour that brings the Cherryholmes clan to the West Long Branch campus of Monmouth University this Friday night.

RED BANK ORBIT: How did the band named Cherryholmes take shape around the family named Cherryholmes? Was there a real concept at work to make this thing happen, or did it just come together naturally?

JERE CHERRYHOLMES: Well, we never intended to be a performing group…we just started playing at home, in 1999 after our oldest daughter passed away. My concept was just to get some instruments and jam around the house. What with our being in the business of raising and educating kids, we didn’t have a lot of time to go out..and living in Southeast Los Angeles, which is a hundred percent Hispanic area, we were kind of living on an island as far as there being places for us to play.

At some point these jam sessions at home led to the next step of playing for the public. Would your first performances have been at a local church, or a little festival in a park?

No, we got our start in a pizza place! We got to be regulars there; we played for free pizza and tips. It’s a good way to cut your cheese.

After a while we went to the bluegrass festivals, and I guess we spent more time playing in the campground than playing up on stage. But it was a special time, with people interacting. Then we played up at a resort, during apple season, where for a while we dressed up like hillbillies. But that job really motivated us to practice a lot, and to increase our repertoire. For the first time, there were people who were willing to pay us money to get onstage and play!

And from that hillbilly period came your trademark beard?

I always had the beard, but I used to keep it trimmed. Then my wife suggested that I just let it grow — I guess she thought ZZ Top was pretty cool — and there you have it. Later on I met William Lee, from the Oak Ridge Boys — the one with the long white beard — and he laughed and said, ‘You’re stuck with it now!’

Seeing you in action, it seems to me that you’re very aware of the role that the bass player would take on in the old-time bands, before modern amplification. Most of the time you probably couldn’t even hear the bass over the other instruments, so he would be the visual focus of the act — he’d clown around, dress in funny outfits, climb on top of the bass…

Yeah, there’s that to it. The bass player was the comedian. My place is to be the spokesperson; to tell stories, funny jokes — it’s a real important role. Plus, when you’re up there playing with children, early on — it’s amazing the amount of things that can go wrong. So you do your ‘look over HERE’ routine, to distract everyone from what’s going on over THERE.

All the kids seem so technically proficient now; it’s hard to believe there was ever a time when they were learning it as they went along.

Skip has become very adept at changing guitar strings — he once changed a string right in the middle of a song he was singing. The crowd went bonkers when he got it in tune just in time to play the lead break!

So what does a typical Cherryholmes set consist of? A little instrumental breakdown sort of stuff; some traditional songs along with the original songs from your albums?

We try not to do a ‘typical’ concert. We want to do something that’s much more audience-engaging, rather than sitting at a museum exhibition.

I keep getting reminded of a forgotten old Disney picture called The One and Only Genuine Original Family Band, with Walter Brennan, Buddy Ebsen, Kurt Russell.

Yes, and I’ve heard the mentions of The Partridge Family — although I don’t know which one if us is supposed to be that little wiseguy with the red hair. No, I don’t think anything was inspirational in that way. Maybe something like the Lewis Family— they’ve been at it nearly 60 years now. Another example would be the Stoneman Family; we’ve met a few of them. Up in Canada, there’s a family band by the name of Leahy; at one time they had about 11 of them traveling in the act.

I understand you lived out in the sticks in Arizona without electricity for a while, and then pretty much on the tour bus for several years, doing all those gigs and home-schooling your kids at the same time — well, I guess we should call them ‘road scholars.’

We road-schooled all of them — and they all graduated! We’ve been based in Nashville for about six years, with cell phones and a post office box, and this past June we finally bought a home for the first time since I left my job in 2002. The older kids went out and got their own places, and the youngest live with us.

Not really being groomed, as they say, for that really slick form of country music stardom, and really adopting a do-it-yourself approach in the early part of your careers, do you feel like part of the Nashville establishment?

We’ve become part of the Nashville establishment as we think of it — our house is about a mile and a half from where Grandpa Jones and Stringbean used to live.

When you hit the Jersey Shore on April 3rd, I’m guessing that this will be your first visit to the area? What are some of the places where you have a big fanbase?

This will be our first time, although sometimes on tour it gets very hard to figure out where you are and when you’ve been there. We have some favorite places to play — Clinch Mountain in Virginia; North Carolina, Nashville — but there’s bluegrass music to be found everywhere in this country, and we can round up a good audience just about anywhere.