According to an old adage, it takes at least ten years to create an over-night sensation. The saying holds true for Nu-Blu, a bluegrass band based in Siler City, North Carolina. Lead singer and songwriter, Carolyn Johnson Routh and her band-mate/husband, Daniel Routh, knows it took more than a few years of hard work to make Nu-Blu a success.
It took a miracle.
Carolyn, a native of North Carolina who speaks with a melodic southern drawl, began her singing career in her church’s choir when she was about 8 years old. She had an aptitude for, and a love of, music. She sang in school musicals and plays. By age 18, she was singing in Broadway musicals.
Eventually, she started a contemporary Christian band. That’s when she met Daniel, who was playing banjo in a bluegrass band at the time. Carolyn had the vocals covered. She had a guitar player and a drummer. Her band was in need of a bass player. Daniel put down his banjo and picked up the bass.
Nine years younger than Carolyn, she saw Daniel as a “kid in the band.”
“When he was first learning to play bass….every afternoon for a couple of weeks, I called the drummer…he’d grown up in Siler City. I’d always known him and we’d been friends for a long time…I’d call him and say, ‘please, let’s fire Daniel. He’s not going to make it. It’s not working.’ He’d say, ‘no, no, no. Have patience. Let’s just give him a chance.’ I’m thankful that the Lord’s wisdom prevailed!”
Daniel stayed in the band, and he and Carolyn became good friends.
In 2000 and 2001, the band was playing Christian rock. Churches in North Carolina had yet to embrace the contemporary Christian music movement. Many churches did not want drums in their services. Eventually, the drummer moved to another state. Carolyn had a hard time finding another drummer interested in playing that style of music.
The band changed directions, playing country in local bars. It quickly became obvious that was not where they wanted to be. Carolyn suggested they start a bluegrass band, a move Daniel vehemently opposed. After a month of arguing, Daniel agreed and Nu-Blu was born. Today he laughs about it. “I just wanted to make sure she really wanted to do it.”
Carolyn and Daniel had a specific purpose for creating a new band – a new identity. “We did not want to be a 10 to 2 cover band,” Daniel said with a southern drawl equally as pleasant as Carolyn’s. “We wanted to play original material. We wanted people to say, ‘Hey, that’s Nu-Blu!’ ”
In October 2003, the newly formed Nu-Blu attended the International Bluegrass Music Association’s conference in Louisville, Kentucky. The band included Carolyn, Daniel, Levi Austin on banjo and Austin Koerner on mandolin.
Carolyn had been getting migraines. When they got back from the conference, her doctor scheduled her for a headache clinic to determine the cause. The pain became so severe she ended up in the emergency room of a local hospital the day before Thanksgiving. Since she was already scheduled for the headache clinic, the ER doctors sent her home.
Later that evening, Carolyn’s speech became confused and unintelligible. She was rushed to the emergency room again then transferred to a larger hospital. On Thanksgiving day, surrounded by neurologists, Carolyn, at 34 years old, had two strokes. A closer examination of the MRI from her first trip to the emergency room revealed a blood clot in her brain that had been overlooked.
Carolyn doesn’t remember much of what happened while she was in the hospital. However, Daniel was with her and filled in the blanks. She was placed in a medically-induced coma for a few days to give her brain a chance to rest. When she was brought to consciousnesses, she had lost motor skills on the right side of her body. “The hardest thing I had to learn how to do was write. I’m right handed. I had to learn all over again!” She had to lean how to walk, talk and eat, as well.
Carolyn describes her first attempts at walking as the “grandma shuffle.” The way she moved made her look like a very old woman. She wondered to herself, “Am I going to walk like this for the rest of my life?” Carolyn giggled when she recalled, “God thumped me on the ear and said, ‘Hey, at least you are walking!’” Her main instrument, her voice, was intact, although she couldn’t remember songs like she had before the strokes.
Carolyn was in the hospital for over a week. She was told she would need 24-hour care because of her limited mobility. The first day home from the hospital, she dressed herself. It took over half an hour, but she had accomplished something the doctors said she couldn’t do. That set the pace and tone for her recovery.
Carolyn gives credit to the power of prayer and to God for her recovery:
“I had people as far as South Africa praying for me. It was amazing – the emails, the letters, the postcards, the phone calls I got. It was over whelming. I tell everybody now that I’m a walking miracle If you want to see what a miracle looks like – this is it!”
The experience completely changed Carolyn’s outlook on life in a profound and lasting way. She has so much more compassion for people who have diminished capacities. She has learned two very valuable lessons:
“Don’t take life for granted and don’t take the small stuff for granted. Because it’s the small stuff, the little things in life, that we don’t think about that are actually such great things.
It’s wonderful being able to write your name without thinking about it. Being able to feed yourself without thinking about it. People don’t take it for granted on purpose. It’s just things we don’t think about. We don’t think about it being an issue until it is. I’m a lot more thankful for the small things in life.
There’s these programs that I see on the satellite TV…it’s some kind of infomercial thing. It’ll be like ‘I Hate My Feet.’ That’s the name of the show or it’s ‘I Hate My Hair’ or ‘I Hate My This or I Hate My That’…I learned never to say things like that. I used to be really, really bad. When I’d get upset about something or would be really down about something, I’d say “I hate my life.” After the strokes, I realized I don’t hate my life. I love my life. I’m thankful for my life. I am thankful for every second – good, bad or indifferent.
The other thing is “life it too short to not enjoy it.” It kind of goes with the being thankful for things, you know. Enjoy it! Find something that you like and really enjoy!
Throughout Carolyn’s ordeal, Daniel was by her side. In 2006, Daniel and Carolyn were married. She talks about how their unusual courtship (or lack thereof) brought them together:
“I look back on it and I honestly don’t know when I turned the corner. I stopped seeing Daniel as a kid in the band and started seeing him as the man I love. It was not your Cinderella story where people meet and fall in love at first sight. It was really a growth process for he and I both. The way our relationship developed, the way our friendship grew until one day it was like ‘hey, this is it!’ We both knew. I always joke and say we never dated. We “un-dated.” We were best friends, then one day we decided to get married. So many times relationships start with that infatuation stage, which is a very euphoric stage. And that’s great! But then, when life hits you in the face and some of that starts to wear off a little bit, and problems come up, I think that’s where a lot of couples end up really struggling. We did it completely in reverse.
I like to compare it to when you meet somebody and you’re head over heals with them to begin with, you’re in that euphoric stage of the relationship. Even when you don’t realize your doing it and don’t necessarily mean to do it, you do change a little bit. You’re putting on airs to the point where you’re putting your best foot forward for this person because you’re really interested in that person. You hope they see you in the same way. You may do things a little different then you normally would. You may say things differently then you normally would.
If you start out as friends…you don’t think about things the same way with a good friend. With somebody that’s a true friend, someone you trust, you can look at them and say, “You know, that really makes you look fat,” as an example. A friend is going to say, “Really, you’re kidding!” They’re not going to get mad about it. They’re going to take it as constructive criticism and they’re going to go on and you’ll still be friends. With a dating relationship, you can’t do that.”
Daniel is more then a banjo-player, turned bass-player, turned husband. He is the band’s sound engineer and manager. He has recorded, mixed and mastered all of Nu-Blu’s five national releases in the Routh’s home studio called Red Squared Studio. Aptly named as both Carolyn and Daniel are red-heads.
Currently signed with Rural Rhythm Records, Nu-Blu has complete creative control over their projects. The band is self-produced; meaning they are responsible for the song selections, arranging, and execution on each CD project.
Nu-Blu’s latest CD release, “All The Way,” includes the song, “Jesus and Jones,” with “Soul Man” Sam Moore. The song brought Nu-Blu national attention with an appearance on Mike Huckabee’s program in September of 2014.
On July 3, nominations for the 2015 International Bluegrass Music Association Awards were announced. Nu-Blu was nominated in three categories: Song of the Year: “That”s What Makes The Bluegrass Blue” featuring Rhonda Vincent; Emerging Artist of the Year; and Carolyn Routh as Female Vocalist of the Year.
“Our initial goal was to get to the point where we could do this as a band, full time, and support the other musicians in the band,” Daniel explains. “We’re getting to that point. We’ve been doing it (full-time) for three years now. Our goal is to grow that for everybody involved. Our goal now is to continue to make good music that touches people.”
Daniel quoted Kenny Rogers:
“Music should make you laugh, make you cry or make you think. If it doesn’t do one of those three things, then you’re wasting everybody’s time.”
Daniel whole-hardheartedly agrees. “He (Kenny) is right on that. Emotion is always big part of everything we do in music. Music is the universal language. You can have someone who may not speak your language, but you can play a song together and it makes sense. And most people will feel the same emotions.”
When asked about future Nu-Blu’s goals, Daniel said, “We’re not about building a fan base, but building a friend base. We want to have friends everywhere we go.” He talks about playing bigger venues and taking bluegrass to a much larger audience.
“Bluegrass is a misunderstood music. All music has stereotypes irregardless. Whenever you think of a rock band in your mind, you think of certain things. You picture a country band, you picture a western-swing band. You picture all this stuff. Through the years, bluegrass has taken on a certain look and feel. When people close their eyes, that’s what they see.
Nowadays, the modern stuff and the contemporary bluegrass like what we’re doing, is a whole new look and feel. People are used to seeing a full band behind a singer, maybe a group of back-up singers. Bluegrass is four or five people doing everything. You have a mandolin which is the quietest instrument, and the banjo which is the loudest, yet they blend.”
Both Carolyn and Daniel are quick to point out that Nu-Blu’s success is not due to their efforts. They are very clear that God is the reason they are doing so well. They intend to honor Him every time they play.
Daniel said, “We are given a Great Commission and we’ll continue to play gospel where ever we go.”
Nu-Blu’s gospel CD, “Nail By Nail” features “The Hammer,” a powerful song about Jesus’ crucifixion written by Carolyn. Daniel recalls playing the song at a secular event. At the end of the song, a woman in the audience stood up, clapping loudly. She was crying. Later, the woman bought a copy of the gospel CD. She commented on how well-written, “The Hammer” was and how it had moved her.
Daniel was surprised when the concert promoter told him the woman who had been so moved by a song about Jesus was an outspoken atheist in the community.
In fact, “The Hammer,” is being requested more and more often. Nu-Blu created a sound track of the song so it can be sung in church. Daniel has made chord charts for people so they can play the song themselves. It’s showing up on play lists all over the country, and even being streamed on airplanes.
“When you look at it,” Daniel said, “there is absolutely nothing we could have done to make all that happen. It’s a God thing. There’s no way to explain it any other way.”
For more information on Nu-Blu, visit their web site. Dates for future performances, including Arizona, will be announced soon.