Mountain Heart Expands the Boundaries of Bluegrass

The members of Mountain Heart. (Photo: Anthony Ladd, Kneelin Design)

For more than a decade the name Mountain Heart has been bubbling under the surface in Nashville. Originally known as a nearly straight-ahead bluegrass act, the band has undergone personnel and stylistic changes while building a reputation as a stellar live act with top-notch players. Now, on its first studio album with vocalist and keyboardist – that’s right, keyboardist – Josh Shilling, the band is branching out to do the music its fans have asked for, while turning its attention to finding more of a place in the mainstream.

Founded in 1998, Mountain Heart still has two original founding members, fiddler Jim VanCleve and banjo player Barry Abernathy, playing instruments that help the band retain its bluegrass identity. But the rest is up for grabs, as evidenced on the band’s latest CD That Just Happened, which VanCleve produced (or perhaps it should be called an EP with just seven songs, though the recording is as long as some vinyl LPs used to be back in the day). From the Shilling/VanCleve title track, to the dark bluegrass standard “Little Sadie” to a cover of the Allman Brothers classic “Whipping Post,” the Mountain Heart sound is both eclectic and innovative on this album, which is just starting to get legs and could be the next big thing at country radio.

“This record was really a record we did for ourselves as well as our fans,” Shilling said from a bus, en route back to Nashville after a performance in Louisville. “We have a strong fan base all over the country, and we used Facebook and Twitter to help us decide what to cut, finding out what our fans wanted to hear us play.”

VanCleve, who produced the CD, said that the addition of Shilling a few years ago gave the band the ability to branch out into some other directions. And he said that the decision to record the seven-minute-plus version of “Whipping Post,” with Shilling scat singing, was an easy one. “Josh has brought a diverse musical background to the band, and the song is a great showcase for his vocals,” he said. “And it’s a great way to showcase the instrumentalists in the band as well.”

The band has been touring with acts as diverse as Lynyrd Skynyrd and newgrass guitar legend Tony Rice, gaining new fans while exposing old ones to its ever-evolving sound. The band issued That Just Happened without the support of a label, and has opted to go it alone with no record deal for the present.

“We could have a deal,” VanCleve said, “but it almost seems like more trouble than it’s worth at the moment. We’ve got a great fan base and we know what our fans want, so we’re just doing it ourselves for the time being.” VanCleve and Shilling call Nashville home, while the other members live in surrounding Southern states.

As soon as the band pulled in from Louisville it was scheduled to make an appearance on the stage of the Grand Ole Opry, a place VanCleve said has become like a second home.

“Mountain Heart has played the Opry over 100 times,” he said, “and I’ve probably played it myself more than 50 times with other acts.” VanCleve’s resume is an impressive one, as he has worked with Ricky Skaggs, Vince Gill, The Band Perry, Carrie Underwood and numerous other acts, both live and in the studio. Some of these acts are far from his bluegrass roots, although he got his start in the late 1990s working with Doyle Lawson and Quicksilver.

The new Mountain Heart album features another non-bluegrass instrument besides Shilling’s keyboards: drums, courtesy of Nashville session legend Eddie Bayers, who has played for nearly every major country artist of the past quarter-century.

“We’ve all seen Eddie at the Opry and have all listened to him and loved his work for years and years,” Shilling said. “He’s the guy for drums in Nashville, plus he’s just a sweetheart of a guy. He played exactly what every song needed, understood exactly what we were trying to do. We also spent some time at the piano together in the studio (Bayers was originally a session pianist).” Other guests on the album include acoustic guitar monster Bryan Sutton (Ricky Skaggs, Taylor Swift) and newgrass pioneer John Cowan, who is currently on the road playing bass with the Doobie Brothers.

On the more traditional side, in addition to being frequent guests on the Opry, the band is hosting a monthly radio show on Nashville’s legendary radio station WSM-AM. One would think that, given the admiration and support they receive from countless fans and some of Nashville biggest names, that Mountain Heart would be a shoo-in for some love from country radio soon.

“We’re a group that appeals to several tastes, kind of a hybrid of a few things,” VanCleve said. “In the end, we’re just a group of organic, pure musicians out doing who we really are. What we do is a little left of center for some formats, but it’s very unique and we think it’s starting to take hold.

For more information about Mountain Heart, go to www.mountainheart.com.

By Rick Moore

1 Comment

  1. If you are near East Hartford, CT on Friday, August 5, 2011 – then you need to be at the 16th Annual Podunk Bluegrass Festival as Mountain Heart will be taking the stage at 9 PM. This is one show you won’t want to miss!

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