As the 2015 bluegrass tour season is winding down and professional acts look back on the year that was, can anyone have a bigger story to tell than Mountain Faith? They appeared repeatedly on national television as contestants on America’s Got Talent, were nominated for an Emerging Artist of the Year award from the IBMA, and are now celebrating the release of their second album for Mountain Fever Records.
Next month they’ll embark on a tour of US military bases in the Middle East, and on December 27 they will sing the National Anthem at the NFL game between the Carolina Panthers and the Atlanta Falcons. Many of these opportunities came as a result of their visibility on TV this summer. An Air Force officer responsible for entertainment at bases around the Persian Gulf saw them on America’s Got Talent, and is flying them out to entertain the troops at several spots in that volatile region.
But this week the focus is on That Which Matters, their brand new record which continues in their vein of performing a mix of modern bluegrass with elements of country, pop, and contemporary Christian music in an upbeat and engaging style. With only a few exceptions, all the songs feature the endearing vocals of fiddler Summer McMahan who is poised to accept the crown of bluegrass “it girl” any moment now. She is a lovely young woman with an equally beautiful voice who charmed a large segment of the American public on television. There are some things that are very difficult to fake, and her earnestness and enthusiasm on America’s Got Talent did as much to keep them going week-to-week as the joyous nature of their music.
And that shines though here. From the opening strains of Someone Prayed, a song Summer wrote with mandolinist Cory Piatt, to the last notes of There Is A God, her cover of a 2009 Lee Ann Womack hit, you are encouraged to believe every word McMahan sings. There can be no doubt that she believes, something she shares with the other band members including her brother Brayden on banjo, dad, Sam, on bass, and Luke Dotson on guitar.
It’s not required that you share their faith to thoroughly enjoy the music on That Which Matters, though. These talented youngsters want to share it with you all the same. Been There Done That, from Jerry Salley and Aaron Wilburn, tells the story of a sinner looking back on a wasted life, and Summer’s Brother John relates the power of grace and prayer against even the most hardened heart. If you can remain dry eyed by the end of that one, you’re a tougher egg than I am.
Bluegrass fans will really enjoy Run To Meet Him, another contribution from Summer and Cory, with its clever switch between a dark minor-keyed chorus and a more upbeat set of verses. Special kudos to Brayden for his cool, low-tuned banjo on this one. Condemnation is another grassy number that grooves along with a driving, mid-tempo feel, where Piatt delivers a simply wicked “mandolin solo” on bouzouki – in the manner that Adam Steffey describes as “mean.” The Mark Wheeler song carries the familiar mountain modal sound so common in bluegrass today as a duet between Summer and Luke.
Southern Gospel gets a nod with Let My Life Make A Difference, and He’s In Control. The latter has also recently been recorded by Blue Mafia and is a staple on their live show. This extra-bluesy song from Mark Kofahl, Justin Rivers, and John Darwin Rowsey gets a fine restatement here from Luke Dotson on lead vocals with Summer taking lead on the choruses. Their version is a bit less gritty and gutty, but equally powerful in rendition. If you love good harmony singing, this one is for you.
Dotson also delivers a strong performance on Marcia Henry’s Absent From The Body, which gets a driving grass arrangement. He provides top-flight rhythm guitar on every song, and a nimble guitar break on the title track, an ethereal instrument Cory thought up.
The album’s first single, Emily (It’s Love), displays the same facility with pop rhythms as was in evidence on TV, though it was arranged and recorded some months before their first audition for NBC. It’s a fun, poppy number that will make you smile with a message of hope in the face of hard times.
Other players on the CD include producer Aaron Ramsey, who played bass and the odd mandolin and guitar tracks, while Sam McMahan was watching the store, and Tim Crouch and Stephen Burwell who provided fiddle.
Time will tell if Mountain Faith is able to capitalize on their newfound exposure in the pop culture. But on the strength of That Which Matters, it’s a safe bet that they will have an audience within the bluegrass community for as long as they continue to tour and record.