Mountain music is an integral part of the fabric of lives in Haywood County. The relationship was never more true than the bond of the internationally acclaimed bluegrass sensation Balsam Range and the band’s close hometown ties to Canton.

The band sang Canton’s praises in its 2012 album ‘Papertown,’ in a deep connection with the people of Canton, singing:

It’s not “just another papertown, it’s the one that I call home.”

The announcement of the Evergreen closure in Canton, employer of 1,100 people, deeply affected the members of Balsam Range.

“The news of the (mill) closure is heartbreaking,” said Canton native and band vocalist/ bass player Tim Surrett. “The mill is part of our lives — we have family members working there and family who worked there years before. My sister and brother-in-law lost their home in the 2021 floods, and now my brother-in-law is losing his job at the mill. Entire lives are being changed.”

Strong Ties

Surrett reminisced about the years the band spent entertaining in concerts at the Colonial Theater and the many Canton Labor Day appearances.

“I count our biggest blessing as Balsam Range’s connection between us and the town of Canton,” he said. “This is my hometown. Growing up, the Canton Labor Day concerts were the highlight of the year for me. As a kid, I watched my dad (who played guitar and sang in a band) walk out on stage in those Labor Day concerts.

The Balsam Range ties to Canton go way back: Marc Pruett (banjo), Caleb Smith (vocals and guitar) and Surrett all went to Pisgah High School. And now, Surrett’s and Smith’s sons are freshmen at Pisgah.

“I’ve loved this town and lived here almost my whole life,” Surrett said.

Many jobs and businesses revolve around the mill. Surrett said he drove a truck in and out of the mill for a while and his father was part of the interconnected economy, driving the pulp train in and out of the mill.

“I always wanted to work in the mill,” said Balsam Range vocalist and fiddle player Buddy Melton. “Many of my musician friends worked there. I wound up doing environmental studies but later I did environmental contract work at Champion (as it was named then).”

Ever committed to Canton, Surrett broadcasts his radio program, Papertown Roots Radio, from the WPTL studios in Canton and often does play-by-play for Pisgah High sports games.

The Significance of ‘Papertown’

When Haywood County was preparing to celebrate its bicentennial in 2008, Melton was involved in a project to capture “Songs of Haywood County.” He and songwriters Milan Miller (a Waynesville native, now living in Nashville, Tennessee) and Mark W. Winchester worked on the project. In the process, the importance of the Canton mill was noted; they began to research the mill. The result was Miller’s ode to the institution of the Canton mill, the mill employees and the spirit of the town’s residents — it was “Papertown,” which in 2012, became the title of Balsam Range’s fourth studio album. A historic photo of the mill graced the cover.

The words of the song Papertown, still ring true, especially in these uncertain times of the mill closing. Miller’s song captured the pride in Canton and the mill:

“She put food on the table, cars on the highway

Sent kids off to college bound to do things their own way

Through every generation, her influence is clear

She’s taken care of young and old for over a hundred years.

This ain’t just another papertown, it’s part of who I am

Molded me as a little boy so I could be a better man

From the mountains and the farmlands, ‘round the smokestack she has grown

This ain’t just another papertown, it’s the one that I call home.”

Balsam Range held a release party for Papertown in 2012 at the band’s “home,” the Colonial Theater in downtown Canton. Mayor Mike Ray thanked the band for “not forgetting where they came from,” and for titling the new CD Papertown. He also noted the revenue and recognition Balsam Range brought Canton by starting a winter concert series at the Colonial.

Balsam Range’s Papertown was honored as the 2013 International Bluegrass Music Association (IBMA) Album of the Year.

The Next Chapter

Everyone wonders will happen to Canton and the ripple effect of the mill’s closing to Haywood County and beyond.

“It’s (the mill) been there for more than 100 years to provide for the needs, security and strength of the community,” Melton said. “But what makes Haywood County special, besides the beautiful surroundings, is the strong people. We help each other. The people of Canton have pulled through a lot of tough things, like the flood. Covid times taught us to keep our heads up and keep going.”

The community is a faithful one and the members of Balsam Range share that faith.

“It’s a very, very sad time,” Surrett said. “But the faith factor should not be overlooked. While the mill news is a devastating shock, we have to have faith that everyone will be alright.”

As to what the Haywood County hometown band can do to help, that’s being discussed now. In the meantime, Surrett and Melton said the band will play music and hopefully lift spirits.

Balsam Range already has an April 22 concert scheduled in Sorrells Park in Canton on behalf of Altrusa and its student scholarships work. Altrusa announced free admission to all mill workers and their spouses, as recognition for the people of Canton.

A new Balsam Range album is in the works and Melton promised songs full of meaning and purpose, including the Gospel song “God Knows,” written by Caleb Smith — which sounds so right for these troubled times.

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