We’ve written a few times recently about the return of Mountain Heart – a reformed and refocused edition of the group, with a new, even-more-aggressive sound, and a youthfulness and energy they hope can win them a spot in the music world where fans of bluegrass, country, and jamgrass music meet.
Long time followers of the band recall that they first hit in 1998 as a mainstream, contemporary bluegrass act who quickly became a major festival draw. Over the next ten years they gradually moved towards an acoustic country format, until personnel changes and life decisions found all of the founders ready to move on from Mountain Heart by 2014.
But the remaining members were still rarin’ to go, so arrangements were made to bring in new management and establish ownership within the band. Mountain Heart lay fallow for about a year as a new stage show was prepared and a new album recorded, but they are back now with their first record in this format, Blue Skies, set for a May 6 release on Compass Records.
Josh Shilling remains as the primary vocalist, and a chief songwriter. His career in music has crossed bluegrass, country, rock, and blues lines with a powerful voice in a small package and a great big smile whether he’s strumming his guitar or sitting behind a piano on stage. Also still on board is Aaron Ramsey, the talented multi-instrumentalist super picker and singer, and Seth Taylor, guitar slinger supreme from the band’s previous final run. New are Jeff Partin on bass and the indefatigable Molly Cherryholmes on fiddle. Jeff and Molly also contribute to the vocals.
We had a chance to chat with Josh earlier this afternoon about the upcoming CD, the optimism within the band, and the excitement they feel going in to the 2016 season. He told us that this is a song-oriented album, and that they’ve got a batch good’ns in the can.
“It’s been just over five years since Mountain Heart released a project, and this time allowed us the creative space needed to write and arrange what we feel is, without question, the best batch of songs we’ve ever released. As a full-time songwriter, I’ve been blessed to have over a dozen cuts in the last 6 months alone including artists like Sierra Hull, Diamond Rio, and The Infamous Stringdusters featuring Lee Ann Womack. However when it comes to Mountain Heart, I’ve got six special pieces that made the list for this new record.
Over the last year, our fans have helped us choose a few of these songs including Hurting, Have You Heard About The Old Hometown, and No One To Listen with their overwhelming response during live performances. Other songs are brand new and have come together just recently.
Aaron Ramsey penned an instrumental that we’ve been saving for a long time now called The Bad Grounds. The picking and energy on this song is exactly what you’d expect out of a Mountain Heart instrumental with fresh and exciting musical detours along the way!
There are only a few songs that didn’t come from within the band on this project. Aaron Ramsey sings lead on a Bob Dylan cover that we all love, and we also recorded a couple of songs pitched to us by one of our favorites, Ronnie Bowman. Several years back, Ronnie sent us a CD with a bunch of new songs included. From that single demo, She’ll Come Back To Me written with Dan Tyminski, and Can’t Get Over You written with Chris Stapleton really stuck out to us. Folks like Stapleton, Dylan, Bowman, and Tyminski are the only writers outside the band on this project and we feel like that’s some pretty dang good company!
Although we’ve been saving some of this material for several years, songs like the title track were added to the track list just a few months ago. I wrote this song within an hour last summer…it literally just fell out onto the paper. Blue Skies is a song we love to play because of the groove and harmonies, but the positive message the title track screams has become the new Mountain Heart mission statement.
As a group we’re focusing on living in the here and now and celebrating every opportunity we have together. We’re business partners, but through music we’ve become a family, and we’re having a blast touring and creating together.
Here’s a listen to our first single, Addicted, which I wrote.”
My simple question of, “Did you work with an outside producer?” prompted a fairly complex, and revealing response.
“I guess the answer is, yes and no. I say ‘no’ because this project was totally recorded and produced by Mountain Heart and our long-time sound engineer and friend, Eric Willson. I say ‘yes’ because I consider every member of Mountain Heart a producer and incredible artist in their own right.
Over the years, we’ve all witnessed a change with record productions like Chris Stapleton’s. The key with artists like Chris is to surround themselves with a talented team, make them comfortable, and stay the heck out of their way. This is the logic we’ve applied regarding this record and Mountain Heart in general.
In the past, we would record songs by capturing the band and a scratch vocal first. Then we’d replace the lead vocal, add harmonies, overdub extra instruments, and so on. That’s how nearly every record is recorded these days, and that’s precisely why the majority of them sound entirely too perfect. They’re auto-tuned and nitpicked to death, and the records end up sounding robotic and sterile, to put it nicely.
There was no tuning on this record. Although it’s intimidating to play an instrument and sing live in a studio while making a record, that’s totally how we did it this time. This vulnerable process really allowed/forced us to trust our instincts and just play music and have fun. We feel that the emotion and dynamics we captured by recording this way is magical. You can literally hear our chairs move, our feet tapping, and even our breaths. It feels like you’re sitting right in the room with us! It feels like real music.
When it comes to this record and the reinvention of Mountain Heart, we’ve completely rebuilt our team. Everyone believes in and supports what we do. That excitement and that backbone has been incredible and is allowing us to tap into the show and sound we’ve always wanted to bring to the world.
Seth Taylor literally plays every instrument incredibly well and is a full-time session player and producer himself. Same with Aaron Ramsey and Jeff Partin. Their talent level is scary! They both work in studios full-time and play everything ridiculously well. Many readers may know Aaron’s work from his relentless producing and engineering credits at Mountain Fever Records in VA.
The newest member of the band is 5-time Grammy nominee, Molly Cherryholmes. She does it all. She’s an amazing fiddle player originally from the group Cherryholmes, but she has become one of my favorite vocalists of late. Our voices have gelled so fast and so organically. We feel our options are becoming limitless when it comes to our vocal sound. She writes, dances, arranges and produces projects in Nashville. I’ve built a studio at my place in Nashville, and I now work as a full-time session player as well.
When we’re off tour, I’m writing, recording, and producing projects for various artists. I’ve actually got a new duo I’m working with now that I think you guys are going to LOVE!
So the much shorter answer is, no we didn’t bring an outside producer in this time, but we may in the future. It would be nice just to have some of the work lifted off our shoulders, but we wouldn’t change a thing regarding the sound and our approach to recording.”
Listening to the new single, and the rest of the new project reveals music that crosses stylistic boundaries. Some bluegrass fans will come along for the ride, while others will suggest that it’s more appropriate for pop country radio. Either way, the bluegrass roots are clear, as all the current members of Mountain Heart cut their teeth playing grass, and the appeal beyond our borders seems legitimate.
It seemed fair to give Josh a crack at the question, just what is the Mountain Heart sound?
“If you picture the incredibly talented and energetic versions of Mountain Heart from the past as a raging fire, throw a bunch of gasoline into the mix when you think of the new version of the band. Aaron Ramsey and I have been touring and recording with this band for almost a decade, and we feel that this is the most exciting group we’ve been part of.
A few things that are new for folks that haven’t seen us live is, everyone sings now. At times it’s literally like being part of a choir! We still play quite a bit of traditional bluegrass with tight, three part harmony, and some Gospel quartet pieces, but on certain songs we all open up and sing out gang vocals. With Molly and I riffing around and everyone else singing the lead or harmony, it seriously feels like Sunday morning church at times.
We don’t limit our sound or style. Collectively, we play guitars, dobro, lap steel, mandolin, bouzouki, bass, cello, viola, fiddle, piano, organ, accordion, banjo, percussion, and more. We try to incorporate all of it in a tasteful way and we try to appeal to all audiences. We really feel like we play something for everyone in our shows.
The songs that we now have available to us are also special. On this record and during shows we don’t play what you might call ‘fillers.’ I truly love all the material we’re playing, and nightly we have people come up to us saying how this song or that song really hit home. In some cases, how a song and or performance had an impact on them or brought them to tears – it’s such a powerful thing.
Something else that’s brand new to the Mountain Heart stage is dobro. Jeff Partin mostly plays upright bass with us, but several times throughout our show, Aaron switches to bass and Jeff shreds the dobro. We first played with Jeff on dobro when he was just a teenager while touring with Tony Rice many years ago. We knew then that someday we wanted to have him in the band. Jeff’s talents are undeniable and so mature considering his age. That’s the other big difference now, I think; the band is a lot younger. Molly, Seth, and Jeff are all in their early 20s. So the look and energy of our show is quite a bit younger and more electric. The hardest part for me is not looking like the overweight dude in the band…they all weigh like 130 lbs!!
Our shows and this new record, available everywhere on May 6th via Compass Records, is a direct product of a group of people that genuinely love what they do. We can’t wait to bring this new music to the world!
We want to thank our friends and supporters for standing by us as we continue to release new music and live out our dreams.”
The band is using Pledge Music to help fund the production of Blue Skies, and fans can become part of the process by being a crowdsourcing angel, or simply pre-order an autographed copy of the CD. Find more details online.