It’s difficult to remember the last time I was as excited about a band as I am about Mountain Heart.
So much for the impartial journalist, right? But really, if I hear one more band tell me they embrace new members and then stick with the tried-and-true—well, you get the picture. The result, as we all know, is same-old-same-old until the “new” members leave because they aren’t creatively challenged. Yes, the music world is alive with bands that have morphed into their own tribute bands.
But I digress.
No one would have blamed the members of the much honored Mountain Heart, really, if it stuck with its strictly bluegrass formula. After all, that’s the ticket that won them the 1999 Emerging Artist award from the International Bluegrass Music Association (IBMA) and plenty other awards and kudos thereafter.
Of course, the band mates all had their musical chops down long before that. Founders Steve Gulley and Barry Abernathy had plenty of musical street cred before enlisting Jim Van Cleve, then a teenage fiddler they had worked with in Quicksilver, to join them. Adam Steffey, who had worked with Alison Krauss & Union Station, and bassist Johnny Dowdle were also part of the band.
It’s so telling of the current band members’ attitudes that they announced their newest members withticker-tape-parade enthusiastic announcements while still paying tribute to those who were leaving.
Consider the announcement they made late last year when multi instrumentalist Seth Taylor—who the band called “one of the most talented young ‘musicians’ alive” joined the band. Even though Taylor has played with everyone from the Charlie Daniels Band to his “unofficial mentor” Brad Paisley, it is still the rare musicians who will laud a new member in such a way.
And what a refreshing change that is to read. No wonder their new music, which is still based in bluegrass, mixes in more than a fair amount of country, jazz and other formats (don’t worry—they haven’t gone all rock on us though there is rock and R&B in the sound, too!).
“The funny thing about the record Mountain Heart is that it started as bluegrass,” said Van Cleve. “In 2007 [lead vocalist Josh Shilling] joined the band and that was the first day of the new era of the band. We have grown so far beyond any one [musical] description.”
And that growth started right away because Shilling, a talented Nashville songwriter as well as a key that unlocked more of the Mountain Heart band’s creativity, wrote or co-wrote each of the four new songs featured on the group’s live album The Road That Never Ends. The title track reached No. 4 on the Billboard bluegrass charts. That foreshadowed the success of the band’s next studio album That Just Happened, which went to the Top 10 of the Billboard bluegrass charts.
The funny thing about this story is that the band’s sound engineer first heard Shilling sing live and told the band they needed to hear him. Although his vocals weren’t in keeping with the band’s tried-and-true formula, Van Cleeve, Abernathy and the others rolled the dice and invited him to join. Now the band, that includes Jason Moore on bass and Aaron Ramsey in mandolin and dobro, just might need to clear more room on their trophy shelves.
“It was a gutsy call,” said Van Cleeve with a chuckle when talking about adding Shilling. “It could have gone in a lot of different ways but we had faith. He’s taken us to some amazing places musically.”
Find out more about the band and its music, including upcoming tour dates, at their Web site.