Fiddles and Friends

A Balsam Range musician is back to performing after surviving major head injuries

By RANDALL HOLCOMBE

The bluegrass music career of Buddy Melton ’92 was ignited more than two decades ago in Western Carolina’s old Leatherwood Residence Hall. A footnote for his life on stage will be written at WCU’s Mountain Heritage Day festival on Sept. 29, when Melton will perform as a member of the band Balsam Range. In between is a comeback story that revolves around a horrific accident and Melton’s return to the stage with his fiddling and singing abilities intact.

Melton participated in the traditional mountain dance of clogging as a boy growing up in Haywood County, but it wasn’t until he arrived on campus to study environmental science that he started playing bluegrass. He took fiddle lessons, and his roommate from Shelby, John R. McCulloch III ’92, came back from a holiday break with a banjo in hand. “Another guy on the hall had a guitar, and first thing you know, we were hanging out in the dorm room picking and having fun with it,” Melton said. The budding college musicians started attending local bluegrass jam sessions and absorbing the knowledge of Jackson County’s bluegrass veterans. Melton, who had never sung in front of an audience, also got a chance to begin honing his vocal cords.

Graduation time came and Melton transitioned to his other career as an environmental technician for the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources, still playing bluegrass on the side. In the mid-1990s, he joined a Haywood County bluegrass gospel band, Rock Springs Reunion, and he later toured with the Nashville-based ensemble Jubal Foster. In spring 2007, Melton united with two other WCU alumni, banjo player Marc Pruett ’74 and bass player Tim Surrett, along with guitarist Caleb Smith and mandolin player Darren Nicholson to create Balsam Range. The band has since built an enthusiastic following among bluegrass fans in Western North Carolina and across the country, with several songs topping the bluegrass charts. Melton, who still works for the Department of Environment and Natural Resources, now as an environmental engineer, also has recorded a self-titled solo album.

Melton said he was looking forward to singing and playing fiddle for Balsam Range’s fourth recording project, “Papertown,” last March 12 as he was loading cattle on a trailer at his Haywood County farm. He was alone and had herded cows into the front half of the trailer. He thought he had closed the gate that separates the trailer into front and back compartments, but the gate didn’t latch. “I was walking up to close the latch and a cow kicked the gate,” he said. Made of heavy steel pipe, the gate swung back violently and struck him on the head. Melton was able to reach the cell phone on his tractor and call 911. He sat on the porch at his house, struggling to see and to breathe through his mouth, until the paramedics arrived to take him to the hospital.

Kelly Donaldson ’95, a friend of all the members of Balsam Range, was working at his job as editor of the Crossroads Chronicle newspaper in Cashiers when he got word from Melton’s bandmate Nicholson that Melton had been injured. “As soon as I could leave work, I drove straight from Cashiers to Asheville to see Buddy in the hospital. He was alert and talking, and even joking about it a little, but you could tell it was pretty serious,” Donaldson said. The gate had struck Melton in his upper head, shattering his nose, forehead and right eye socket. The lining of his brain was torn and bone fragments had been shoved back into his brain. After two days in the hospital, Melton was sent home to stabilize for surgery, but that was moved forward because he was leaking spinal fluid. Six days after the accident, three teams of physicians collaborated for a 10-hour session to reconstruct Melton’s nose, eye socket and forehead. The surgery also involved a craniotomy – a bone flap was temporarily removed from his skull to provide the physicians access to his brain – and the medical team had to close off part of his sinuses. When he woke up in the intensive care unit, McCulloch was one of the people by his side. “When I was at WCU, I not only got a great education and a degree – I got some wonderful lifelong friendships,” Melton said.

Melton was released from the hospital on March 29, 25 pounds lighter than he was before the accident. But even before leaving the Asheville medical facility, after it became apparent that he would survive his injuries and recover, the thoughts of Melton and his friends and fans had shifted to whether his singing would be affected by his injury and the medical procedures, which left him with altered resonance in his face. “I wasn’t worried about my fiddling, but the big question was whether I would be able to sing,” he said. He went home to his farm where he lives with his wife, Carla Hawkins Melton ’92 MAEd ’02, and daughter, Addie, knowing that the other members of Balsam Range were that same day in an Asheville studio working on their parts for the “Papertown” project. “I called Caleb (Smith) and told him I wanted to go to the studio. I just needed to know,” Melton said. The two arrived at the recording session, eliciting “great shock” from the other members of the group. “I walked over to the mic and put my headphones on and sang. I was weak, but I could still sing,” Melton said. Any worries held by friends and fans that Melton’s singing ability was affected by the incident were fully dismissed on April 7, when Melton rejoined the other members of Balsam Range in an emotional concert at the Colonial Theatre in Canton. The first song Melton sang was “Trains I Missed,” a tune about life’s trials and joys. A YouTube video of the performance allowed Balsam Range fans across the nation and world to share in the joy.

Donaldson, who first crossed paths with Melton when the two were WCU students, said Melton has earned a well-deserved reputation as one of the finest singers and fiddlers in bluegrass. He has attended several Balsam Range performances since Melton’s run-in with the trailer gate. “He sounds as amazing as ever to my ears,” Donaldson said. “I think Buddy has one of the best voices in bluegrass today and I don’t think there are many people in the bluegrass industry who would disagree with that. His voice is just so unique and pure. And his fiddle playing always had been great, but I’ve noticed in the last year or so that it’s gone to a completely different level.”

Donaldson recalled being at Melton’s side in the hospital the day he was injured. “I remember thinking that Buddy had a tough road ahead, and I felt really bad for him as a friend,” Donaldson said. “But I also remember thinking that once the bluegrass world hears about it, he’s going to get an outpouring of love, support and prayers that you wouldn’t believe.” And that is exactly what happened, Melton said. An avalanche of paper and electronic messages came in from around the world. Melton said he always knew the bluegrass community was a tight-knit collection of performers and fans, but the show of support was “overwhelming.” “The kindness that was shown to my family and me meant a lot to me and showed me that even a little bit of kindness really has a big impact on people,” he said. “Those things are important.”