Since late last year, singer, songwriter and mandolinist Darren Nicholson has been revving up his solo career after his departure from Balsam Range, the award-winning quintet he helped to found some 15 years ago. Now, following the release of three singles — a chart-topping murder ballad, a spirited gospel number and a gripping instrumental, all self-penned — he's releasing Wanderer, an album that puts an exclamation point on his musical declaration of independence.
“I have been asked about this being my first release post-Balsam Range,” Nicholson notes, “and if there are any overarching themes. The answer is simply that it has no bearing on the way I approach music. I want top quality, period. Every recording, I try to pick a variety of the best material, musicians and singers to fit the direction of the album.”
“As with [2021’s] Man on a Mission,” he continues, “I wanted musicians who would push me to new places — ultimately taking my original songs and giving them a new flavor. I got youthful, progressive, creative minds involved, and it brought out the best in me. I think Wanderer is unique and original from top to bottom; it’s even vastly different from my previous works. I am so proud of that.”
Indeed, the selection of musicians who appear on Wanderer is powerful evidence of Nicholson’s thoughtfulness: longtime friend and colleague Colby Laney (guitar) and fellow western North Carolinian Zachary Smith (Town Mountain) constitute a powerful rhythm section, while banjoist Wes Corbett (Sam Bush Band) and musically omnivorous fiddler Billy Contreras add more wide-ranging tones, textures and explorations that nevertheless fit seamlessly into Nicholson’s distinctive approach to bluegrass. In the same vein, the all-original song list feels firmly grounded in tradition, yet never sounds rule-bound or formulaic. And though most of the album’s songs were written with frequent collaborator Charles Humphrey III (Songs From The Road Band), Nicholson reached out in new directions to partner with writers like bluegrass favorite Mark “Brink” Brinkman and Eric Gibson of the Americana-leaning Gibson Brothers.
The result is a collection that at once confirms Nicholson’s mastery of bluegrass’s most powerful musical currents and his burgeoning interest in moving beyond the mainstream. Whether it’s the rhythmically sophisticated meditation on liquor and love of “A Lot of Truth In An Empty Bottle,” the easy vibe of “Talkin’ To The Moon”’s extended exploration of its titular image or the good-natured story of a farm boy testing the limits of his energy in “Second Wind,” Wanderer serves as an impressive token of Nicholson’s determination to forge his own musical path — and as just plain good listening, too.
“Wanderer has been an absolute joy from beginning to end,” he concludes. “Writing and crafting all original music has become such a passion for me, and to see these songs turn out like this feels really good. The common thread is that they’re all songs about life: happiness, hardships, love and hope. They are all about me or things I can closely relate to. The only thing I’m qualified to write about is myself. I think being genuine, even if it’s not always pretty, can carry you a long way in life. I just want to keep growing with every recording and working to become a better version of myself.”
Listen to Wanderer HERE.