Mountain Heart finishing new album

We caught up yesterday with Josh Shilling, lead singer in the newly-reformed Mountain Heart, and asked him to fill our readers in on the new band structure, the new album they are putting the finishing touches on, and what to expect from this high-energy outfit this year on stage.

It sounds like there will be a lot to like on the new album, and that they won’t get too far from their bluegrass roots. I asked Josh to share some details, and he did.

Mountain HeartThe new Mountain Heart project is going to have a definitive sound. The way we recorded it allows that sound to be as honest and organic as the outcome of creating a record can be. The bluegrass element stands strong throughout each track featuring Aaron Ramsey on mandolin, upright bass, and vocals, Jeff Partin on dobro, upright bass, and vocals, Jim VanCleve on fiddle, cello, bouzouki, and vocals, Seth Taylor on guitars, banjo and vocals, and myself on guitar, piano, and vocals.

The entire project remains acoustic, but the intensity in spots does not feel like it! While there are sparse ballads that literally make you feel like you’re inside of the singer’s vocal, there are also driving uptempo tunes that feature the Mountain Heart rhythm section, and picking that everyone has come to know and love the group for. As far as the songs themselves go, we’ve recorded a few of our favorites from my catalog, a couple from Chris Stapleton and Ronnie Bowman, an instrumental of Aaron Ramsey’s, and an old Bob Dylan tune that we all love.

After wrapping everything up for the mixing process with Jim and Seth this week, these were the comments from my studio that stuck out to me after our working conversations. “Man, I don’t really get excited about music a ton these days because we all hear so much of it, but this stuff…I’m in love with it.” “This situation is seriously like taking a bunch of legitimate studio cats and throwing them into a room and then making them be great friends that make music together…it’s a once in a lifetime deal.” “I love it…I don’t feel the need to skip a track…like seriously, I love em all!”

Seth Taylor, Josh Shilling and Jim VanCleve in the studio with Mountain HeartI think everyone in the band agrees, the making of this new Mountain Heart CD has been the most liberating recording process of our careers! We chose the absolute best songs we could find back in the Summer of 2014 and started this process at our engineer, Eric Willson’s studio in Asheville, NC. This process is very similar to the stories you’ve heard about “the good old days” in recording music. We went into the studio with no real goals or preconceived notions. We didn’t know if we’d actually record anything that people would hear. We were just experimenting with arrangements and songs and having fun together. This approach allowed us to be comfortable, not worry about every detail or imperfection, and capture some unbelievably emotional performances!

If you’ve ever read the stories about “The Basement Tapes” or a lot of the albums that “The Band” recorded, then you basically know our recording process. We got together, hung out, and had a blast playing some music together just because we love it. AND…it was all recorded!

To me, this entire project finally feels like “us.” If you’ve ever stood in a circle with the Mountain Heart gang or seen us when we were firing on all cylinders on stage, that emotional musicianship and intensity is exactly what’s on this album. We all played and sang live in the studio. Since there’s no way to fix things when recording this way, it’s kind of a one time only, sink or swim situation. However, the outcome is the sound we’ve all been trying to get out of this bunch of players for years. We weren’t searching for a style or direction, we just played together and immediately the sound and feel were there.

Mountain Heart chart resting in the studioMore than a couple of times Aaron Ramsey jerked his booth door open and yelled, “my gosh, this band kicks my butt!” I overheard JimVanCleve and Seth Taylor talking after hearing the playback of a ballad called No One To Listen that had them both in tears, and one said to the other, “man I’m glad I’m not the only one…I didn’t want to say anything to you guys because I figured you’d make fun of me!”

Jeff Partin told me recently, “man this is my favorite music…period.” For me, I feel like my entire being and soul was captured on tape this time. We played and sang 100% live with the lights down low, and I tried to perform as if it were the last time I was ever going to sing and play. There’s no auto tuning or massive fixes…it’s just a bunch of great friends making music together. More than once I walked out of my booth completely soaked in sweat with the feeling of “I can’t believe we just captured that energy.” You can hear us breathing, chairs squeaking occasionally, you can hear tears even, and I believe people are going to love this project for it.

People keep commenting, “what took so long? It’s been over 4 years since you guys released a record…how come?” “Who all is in the band and what’s changed?” or “There seems to be a rejuvenated energy and interest in the group Mountain Heart…what’s different?” I think the shortest answer is, this band has been around for years, but there was never a working partnership in place. So we could never find the best way to handle making records. Who would see profits from a new CD? Who owns what? Do I have job security here?

Overhead view of an iso-booth during Mountain Heart sessionsAlthough we all functioned like partners, we legally were not and this hurt the band in every way. At no point in the band’s history did any member of the band, past or present, actually want to quit or not be involved. The lack of business structure and the lack of partnership, kept us from moving forward. That really has been the only hiccup. So while you’ve seen stories about “Seth Taylor goes to Dailey & Vincent” and then to Craig Morgan, “Jim VanCleve is leaving Mountain Heart,” and many others, the truth is, not one of us ever wanted to leave this situation. We are all full time session players and songwriters and we feel strongly… well, we know in our hearts that we’re in one of the best musical situations that exists. Seth asked me before he went to play with Dailey & Vincent, “I don’t know what to do man…I don’t want to leave Mountain Heart, but it seems like several of you guys might leave the band soon.” We told him to leave for the short term that night. We all knew with certainty that if we ever had time to restructure this band and the business, Seth was going to be involved. And so he is!

In 2014, the discussions for buying all of the band’s assets and becoming legal partners started. Every single guy that we approached about this opportunity, jumped at the chance and within a couple of months, Mountain Heart Entertainment, LLC was formed and as of 2015, Aaron Ramsey, Jeff Partin, Jim VanCleve, Seth Taylor, and myself are the new Mountain Heart!

Guitar tracking room for Mountain Heart sessions“Will Seth and the others be at every single MH show?” The answer is, “YES!” He and the other guys mentioned here now own this group and everything under its umbrella. There absolutely is a rejuvenated excitement among the band and our supporters. As soon as we made these changes and announced it, the calls started coming in from promoters wanting to hear and see this new configuration. So we’re currently filling up our calendar and we’d love to come to your town in 2015!

We have fiddles, banjos, and upright bass in this band and we will ALWAYS play bluegrass music and shows, but we will also be on stages that include artists like The Punch Brothers and The Infamous Stringdusters. We truly hope to appeal to all music lovers!

Right now we’re focused and extremely excited about this new CD and the new show. Please come and see us soon when we’re near your area, and check back often on our website and Facebook for updates about the new project’s release date! Details are coming…STAY TUNED!

Did that answer all your questions?

There’s no word yet on a possible release date or any label affiliation. When that info is shared, we’ll be sure to let everyone know.

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About the Author

John Lawless

John had served as primary author and editor for The Bluegrass Blog from its launch in 2006 until being folded into Bluegrass Today in September of 2011. He continues in that capacity here, managing a strong team of columnists and correspondents.