Mountain Heart unveils their new sound this weekend on The Grand Ole Opry, introducing guitarist/vocalist Josh Shilling for the first time on last night’s Friday Opry, and performing again tonight on the Opry radio broadcast.
They got a call back from the Opry audience last night after Josh sang one of his tunes, and all the guys are excited about having him in the band.
Jon Weisberger, Nashville writer, musician and member of the IBMA Executive Committee, attended the band’s rehearsal yesterday, and passed along some more information and his impressions of Josh, and how he fits into the Mountain Heart sound.
I stopped by Jim Van Cleve’s house Friday to catch a few numbers as Mountain Heart was rehearsing for their weekend’s shows at the Grand Ole Opry with new member Josh Shilling – and, like the members of the band themselves, I was blown away by his talent. Just 23 years old, Josh grew up around Martinsville, Virginia and now lives in Roanoke. But while he heard bluegrass from an early age‚Äîalmost inevitable in that area‚Äîhe was drawn to the piano as a youngster, and by the time he graduated from high school, he was already playing a wide variety of music with an equally wide variety of bands on a semi-professional basis. Indeed, by the time he got the call from Mountain Heart, he was working 200 dates a year.
From what I heard – a half-dozen numbers, including “I’m Just Hear To Ride The Train,” “God And Everybody,” “Heart Like A Road Sign, Head Like A Wheel,” “Deadwood” and a beautiful contemporary country-flavored original of Josh’s – this young man’s going to fit right in with Mountain Heart’s signature sound, while bringing some new dimensions to their music. He can definitely cut the vocals on their existing material. Josh doesn’t sound exactly like Steve Gulley, but there’s no apparent limit to the upper end of his range, and he’s getting inside the songs quickly, so fans will find a lot of continuity of sound in their favorite material.
I sat and talked with some of the guys – Josh, Barry Abernathy and Jason Moore, mostly – during one of their breaks, and was impressed by their mutual admiration. Perhaps surprisingly, it turns out that Josh and the band had been aware of each other for some time, having connected through Mountain Heart’s sound engineer Scotty Bolen, who engineered some demos for Josh a few years back.
“They were doing a record for Clay [Jones] about two years ago,” Josh told me. “And for some reason, I just decided I wanted to go by and check it out, so I eased into the session and introduced myself to everybody. And then just a week or so later Scotty gave them some of the demo stuff.”
“Scotty and Jim and I went to see him at one of his regular gigs, and he was just unbelievable,” Barry added. “Needless to say, we were impressed, and I thought, if there were ever a move made here, he would be the first one that I would want to call‚Äînot that I had any idea he would take a job playing bluegrass!”
Though Josh’s background isn’t in bluegrass, he’s got a solid grasp of the music, both from his wide-ranging tastes – I’ve got everything from Bill Monroe to Tower of Power, and I find something I like in all of it,” he told me – and from the perceptiveness that accompanies his talent. “Bluegrass takes the simplest form of music and does so much with it,” he said. “Playing rhythm guitar with these guys has been a big challenge‚Äîit always seemed almost obsolete in the other bands I’ve played in; it was like, I’m just trying to fill a hole here, who cares what it sounds like. But here, it’s very important. You either do it right or don’t do it at all. It’s got to lock with everything else. And the music is so organic that it’s almost like creating something from nothing. You don’t have to have every piece of technology in the world to make it happen.”
Barry summed up the band’s thoughts about their new member this way. “The first time I heard Josh I knew that that’s the person I wanted to see if he would be interested in doing it. Not that he couldn’t do it, but I don’t really hear Josh singing “Sunny Side Of The Mountain.” He’s not that type of singer. But for what we do, I could hear him fit real well; I heard something that I think can really click. We had two or three people in mind that we knew could do the job, but I just felt like this would be special.”
“I’ve been telling people, you’re going to love it. If you don’t, you don’t like music. And that’s pretty much the way I leave ’em.”
The group promises to record some songs at rehearsal soon and post them online, but in the meantime, Mountain Heart fans who want to get a taste of the group with Josh Shilling can listen to the Grand Ole Opry tonight (1/6) – they’ll be on the 6:30 pm and 9:30 pm segments (all times CST) – by tuning into WSM (650 AM) or visiting the station’s website at http://www.wsmonline.com.
The Opry show tonight is streamed live on WSM, and excerpts from both the Friday and Saturday Opry shows will be posted on the WSM Archives page by early the following week if you miss the live stream. There’s no guarantee that the Mountain Heart shows will be included, but with an encore on Friday night, one suspects that they will be featured.
Mountain Heart invites all their friends and fans to give a listen to the Opry this weekend, and share your thoughts about the new sound in their online forum.