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The world’s most beloved stringed instrument is called a violin or a fiddle, depending on how and where it’s played. In the hands of Texas-raised, Nashville-based Ross Holmes, it can be one or the other or a creative hybrid of the two.
Holmes, who was transfixed by the instrument as soon as he held one at eight years old, has translated omnivorous musical curiosity into a remarkable career launch that’s taken him to more than 40 countries and prestige destinations including the Silk Road in China, Carnegie Hall and the massive Glastonbury festival. Adaptable and authentically interested in a huge variety of music, he’s lent his talents to country stars, pop icons and bluegrass standouts. He’s also formed genre-shattering bands of his own including the adventuresome instrumental trio ChessBoxer. Having accumulated extensive experience for such a young artist, Holmes is now applying his multi-instrumental skills and his belief in music itself to new media, new outlets and new concepts.
Growing up in Fort Worth, Ross’s family was steeped in music, especially Texas contest fiddling. He combined lessons in that traditional school with classical training, studying under Dr. Kurt Sprenger, as well as contest fiddlers Jimmie Don Bates and Joey McKenzie. It was the eclectic environment of Mark O’Connor’s Fiddle Camp in Nashville where he befriended a new generation of genre-fluid string players.
In the Fall of 2002, he met singer/songwriter/mandolinist Bryan Simpson and banjo prodigy Matt Menefee, and together they started the progressive bluegrass band Cadillac Sky. The ensemble got a foothold touring regionally around the south. When their progress was interrupted in 2004, Holmes drove overnight to Nashville for an audition with fast-rising country traditionalist Josh Turner. Ross earned his first industry experience on the road with the baritone star. Cadillac Sky became active again after 2005 with a string of albums on leading indie labels, earning widespread respect in the bluegrass world as a band that appealed to both traditionalists and younger adherents of Nickel Creek and Old Crow Medicine Show.
In 2010, through an engagement at the Telluride Bluegrass festival, the members of Cadillac Sky met the members of an emerging British folk pop band, Mumford & Sons. They made music that weekend and wound up touring together, setting up a fateful turn of events for Holmes’s career.
Just as Cadillac Sky went on hiatus again, Mumford & Sons invited Ross to be their fiddle player. He toured globally as the band blew up into one of the biggest pop sensations in the world, making headline appearances for 250,000 people at the Glastonbury Festival, Lollapalooza in Chicago, and Red Rocks Ampitheater. Holmes was on board the train tour shared by Mumford, Old Crow Medicine Show and Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros in 2011 that became the Grammy winning film The Big Easy Express. Ross became an even deeper contributor to Mumford when he arranged the string parts for the band’s anticipated second album Babel, which went on to win the Grammy Award for Album of the Year.
SomewhereDuring this time, Ross’s musical explorations with Cadillac Sky banjo player Matt Menefee gelled into a duo and then trio called ChessBoxer, one of the most refined and exciting groups to pick up the Newgrass instrumental torch lit decades ago by Mike Marshall, Béla Fleck, Jerry Douglas and others. Indeed Fleck gave ChessBoxer a vote of confidence by connecting them with roots rocker Warren Haynes, who made the trio his backing group and opening act for the three-continent Ashes & Dust tour. ChessBoxer’s freedom to tour independently has been limited by other commitments, but the compositional and recorded output has set a high bar for creativity in the chameleon space Ross has cultivated.
The most pivotal recent opportunity has been Holmes’s current job on the road with pop rocker Bruce Hornsby. This highly skilled and flexible ensemble has provided Holmes with something he’s not had before: a gig that’s both high profile and high freedom. Every night’s different, and he’s encouraged to play up to his capacious skill and experience level.
Other projects have taken Holmes to surprising, fulfilling places. He embarked on a six-week Silk Road tour in Western China with folk standout Abigail Washburn. He’s performed original music with rock star Phil Collins on Davey Crockett’s fiddle at The Alamo, the most important landmark in Ross’s home state. And he’s started development on a television series spotlighting music as it is actually played and lived with around the world.
He’s composing new classical music, producing other artists and finding chances to collaborate with unexpected partners. It adds up to a broad mandate and a big but unpredictable future for one of today’s modern masters of that four stringed, five-hundred-year-old bowed instrument, whatever you want to call it.
On the road