It’s not unusual for established bands to continue to carry on long after their original members have departed. There are any number of examples of that scenario taking place, be it Journey and Jefferson Starship or the Allman Brothers, the Guess Who and the Byrds. Each underwent significant changes, but it’s rare to find an outfit that has made a total osmosis, one that finds the current line-up entirely different from the group that initiated the outfit originally.
With that in mind, trying to trace Mountain Heart’s trajectory since its founding some 20 years ago can prove a daunting task. Any number of musicians have passed through the band’s ranks during that time, and a scorecard would seem to be the best way to keep track of all the players involved. Not surprisingly, the comings and goings have resulted in an evolution of the band’s sound, from bluegrass and Gospel to the current well-seasoned blend of folk and grassicana.
So too, the band’s current line-up — Josh Shilling (lead and harmony vocals, keyboards, acoustic guitar), Jeff Partin (guitar, dobro, vocals), Seth Taylor (guitars) and Aaron Ramsey (mandolin, acoustic guitar, resophonic guitar, vocals) — has stabilized over the past several years and helped solidify their sound. Shilling, whose piano work has accounted for one of the most marked changes in the band’s direction, has been in the line-up since 2006, and has helped to steer their sound towards a more popularly accessible stance, as represented by their two most recent albums — 2016’s Blue Skies and their upcoming effort entitled Soul Searching, due for release on August 10. While echoes of their bluegrass origins remain firmly at the fore, the songs and styles are geared to find favor with a larger audience as well.
“It was never at a point where the whole band said, ‘We’re out of here,’” Shilling says of the transition. “We’re all still friends and every phase of this band has featured great musicians. We’re in the band’s 20th year now, so at some point one guy will leave and then a few years later, someone else will leave, and maybe a few years later, someone will get married. Life happens. The one thing that’s always stayed true in the band is the musicianship. It’s just phenomenal. That’s been true with every single version of the band.”
That’s proven to be true. Over the course of its collective career, Mountain Heart has accumulated any number of critical kudos, among them, the IBMA Emerging Artist of the Year award in 1999 (even before the release of their first album), the IBMA’s Gospel Recorded Performance of the Year prize in 2002, and more than a dozen other nominations in various categories by the IBMA in the years since. And that doesn’t even included the individual honors — Grammys included — that have been accrued by the individual members themselves.
“For the people that have followed us over the course of our 20 years, it may seem like a different band,” Shilling adds. “But most of us have been in the band for a number of years. Still, if you Google the name, you’ll see there’s been like 15 people in the line-up. But as long as the music evolves and stays strong, it can keep people engaged. Sometimes you need the change. You can’t keep doing the same thing.”
Indeed, Mountain Heart remains more durable and indelible than ever. “If the band started to diminish the music, we’d all probably hang it up,” Shilling allows. “It still manages to stay exciting and it keeps pushing us forward. It works because of the changes that were made.”
Shilling emphasizes that the changes haven’t diminished the group’s enthusiasm for its seminal sound, but rather have given them a new way of viewing their muse. “It’s not that we’ve gotten away from the bluegrass thing, but now we embrace what we have,” he insists. “We used to kind of hide the piano. We’d only use it on select dates, but it was rarely recorded because the band felt like it might turn people off, or maybe would alienate certain fans. But what we’ve found is that the only way to have an original sound is to be yourself. Rather than hide things, we’ve started to exploit them.”
Shilling also attributes those changes to the band’s songwriting strengths. “We’ve all written songs for other people that ended up on Grammy winning albums,” he suggests. “There are probably 50 or 60 of those songs that we should have recorded. Blue Skies came at the point when we decided to record our songs and not try to figure out who people wanted us to be. Let’s just be us. That’s when the cohesiveness really started to click in the band. The transition took place 11 years ago when the current line-up settled in, but the evolution into what it really is took place around 2015 when we started recording the Blue Skies album.”
Not surprisingly, Shilling is especially pleased with the new record, which the band will play in its entirety at the Grand Ole Opry the day of its release. It’s an effort, he says, to create a decided shift in stance to represent the essence of what the band is today.
“It’s not just your average love songs,” he maintains. “The title track is introspective. It’s about who you are and where you’re going and what you’re supposed to be doing in life. There’s a lot of material on this record that’s a little heavier and cooler in a way that makes these tracks more than just another love song or a song about a train.”
Notably too, the title track in particular holds special significance. Shilling cowrote it with members of the Infamous Stringdusters, and aside from the fact that it also graced that band’s last album, Laws of Gravity, it also helped garner that album a Grammy for Best Bluegrass Album. “I’ve got a a Grammy plaque for that,” Shilling says proudly. He points out that Mountain Heart had the song in their live repertoire for a year prior to its recording.
“It seemed to be the right song to encompass what we’re doing,” Shilling explains. “We’re all soul searching in a way. There’s life stuff happening in that song that had meaning for all of us. In a way, all the songs on the album have that introspection. These songs feel fresh, and very timeless. There are some songs on this record that I feel could stay around awhile.”
Shilling also points out that all the songs with one exception were written by members of the band. However he also credits an array of special guests — drummer Kenny Malone, banjo player Scott Vestal, fiddler Stuart Duncan, drummer Bryon Larrance and singer Ronnie Bowman — for their contributions to production as a whole.
For the moment anyway, Shilling says he’s satisfied. “We told ourselves, ‘Let’s cut the absolute best material we can.’ If that’s all we do, that’s great. If we don’t get any further than that, that’s a good legacy right there.”