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Back in blue
Mountain Heart is not your grandfather's bluegrass band
The band onstage

Smack in the middle of Mountain Heart’s most popular instrumental rave–up, “#6 Barn Dance,” the award–winning bluegrass sextet will veer into 4/4 time and start banging out some familiar–sounding chords ... and there it is, like it was meant to be part of an old–time breakdown: AC/DC’s “Back in Black.”

That’s the sort of thing to expect from this most progressive of progressive bluegrass groups: The unexpected. Ever since the band was formed, 10 years ago, by exiles from Alison Krauss’ and Doyle Lawson’s bands, Mountain Heart has been about adding surprise and showmanship to its certifiably brilliant brand of acoustic musicianship.

Mountain Heart returns to Randy Wood Guitars, to the intimate Pickin’ Parlor, Friday, Dec. 4. Every time they’ve played at Randy’s, the place has been packed.

The band includes founding members Jim Van Cleve (fiddle) and Barry Abernathy (banjo), plus Clay Jones (guitar), Jason Moore (standup bass) and Aaron Ramsey (mandolin), each one a bluegrass virtuoso and a harmony singer of considerable prowess.

The newest member is 26–year–old Josh Shilling, who grew up in a Virginia mountain town, not far from where Mountain Heart and other acoustic artists worked at a small recording studio.

Shilling, who cut his teeth on rhythm ‘n’ blues music, is a versatile vocalist capable of stunning shifts of color and power, and his addition to the band in 2006 turned a really, really good group into one of the great ones (ever heard a bluegrass version of the Allman Brothers’ “Whipping Post”?)

The days of Bill Monroe and a bunch of stiff–backed guys in coats and ties are long gone. Bluegrass, thanks to energetic, electric bands like Mountain Heart, has reached the present day.

How did you come to join Mountain Heart?

Josh Shilling: I would be in doing these demos of R&B–type stuff, and this engineer I knew also ran sound for Mountain Heart. I think he took some of my demos on the bus one weekend, and turned the Mountain Heart guys on to me as a singer. They’ve always been progressive and innovative; a little bit outside the norm as far as the traditional bluegrass band is concerned. They were a phenomenal band, way back when.

The first time we all actually met was in 2005. They were recording Clay Jones’ solo record, and I went by the studio and hung out with them. They talked to me about if there would ever be a possibility of me singing with them. At that time, I’d never thought of myself as a tenor singer, whatsoever. I was this behind–the–groove, backbeat kind of guy who played all this R&B and funk stuff.

Another year or two, they were actively looking for another singer. And I was in an R&B band – big horn section, I’m playing Hammond organ. Drums, soul singers, a full–on R&B band. I was wearing myself thin, playing like four or five nights a week. And not getting the exposure I wanted, I think, as a singer or as a writer.
It was a very good time for them to make a change, and it was a good time for me to try something new.

Did it gel right away?

Josh Shilling: If there was something that pushed me over the edge, it was when at our first rehearsal we worked up a song that I’d written. These guys were willing to go out there and represent my songs with their talent. It was an honor, first of all, and secondly it was “Hang on. This looks more like a career situation than playing in festivals and honky tonks, and playing cover music every night.” Which is kind of what I was doing.

You’re a piano player ... but you have the second guitar spot in Mountain Heart, which isn’t exactly softball stuff.

Josh Shilling: I played acoustic guitar, but I only used it for writing songs. And I might break it out onstage every once in a while, for a country song in a bar somewhere, and play rhythm. When they approached me I said “Man, I’m not a real good guitar player.” I’m thinking of all the negatives: I’m not a tenor singer, and I really don’t know any bluegrass material. They were like “Trust us. This will be awesome if we can work it out.”

We had one rehearsal, and we decided to give it a trial run. Then they called and said “We got your first gig – we’re playing at the Ryman Auditorium, at the Grand Ole Opry, on live radio.”

That was your first gig?

Josh Shilling: In January 2007, live on the radio. To beat it all, I had a bad head cold, and I was still getting to know everybody. And here I am on one of the stages people dream about playing. Thank God it was a really good response. You only get two songs on the Opry; that night we did their song “I’m Just Here to Ride the Train,” and one of my own songs, “Who’s the Fool Now.”

I remember that right as I was finishing up the last line of the song, I closed my eyes and did this big high note. Put all the juice on it that I could or whatever, and finished the song out, and when I opened my eyes I realized that the whole place was standing up. They skipped a commercial, and sent us back out there to do another song. We didn’t even have another song worked up! I was just out there with the guys, flyin’ by the seat of my pants.

Welcome to the contemporary world of bluegrass.

Josh Shilling: I’d never been exposed to bluegrass, really, in that sense. I mean, I knew what bluegrass was, but I’d never been to all these festivals and realized that man, there’s this huge cult market all over the world for this stuff. I thought it was a kind of East Kentucky, Tennessee, Virginia kind of a thing. I didn’t know you could go over to Switzerland and everybody knows you by your first name. You can play a festival in London and they think you’re stars. I didn’t realize that at all.

There are a lot of progressive bluegrass bands around. Is there a feeling in the band like “Yeah, we’re doing something really different”?

Josh Shilling: There are bands that have done some things that are really different, just to be doing something different. Just to try to make the bluegrass community mad, or try to mix something into country that country wouldn’t allow. Honestly, Mountain Heart just kinda does whatever represents who’s in the band. Aaron, who plays mandolin, is more of a jammer, like Sam Bush or somebody. So we do some of that stuff – let him jam, let his hair down, go wild. And it’s because that’s his personality.

When I think about the Doobie Brothers, you’ve got Pat Simmons and Michael McDonald, random guys. You’ve got all these different personalities who came together to make this sound, and that’s kind of like what Mountain Heart’s done. All these different styles and it’s melded together, and it’s this nice big sound that you’ve never heard before.

Are you thinking this might be temporary, that you might use this as a springboard to something else, a door to a solo career?

Josh Shilling: I don’t think it’s temporary. When I first joined the band I wondered how long it would work out for them, as a group. At the time they were still very bluegrass, even though they were on the edge of bluegrass. And I didn’t know if bluegrass was something I wanted to do forever.

Now, we can go do a bluegrass show. We’ll go out with Tony Rice and sing bluegrass all night long. Or, we can go on tour with Lynyrd Skynyrd, which we’ve done, and be a rock ‘n’ roll band. We can add a drummer and go do a country or rock show. Or we can strip it down and be as traditional ‘grass as you want to be.

Yeah, they do give me a lot of the spotlight, which has been an awesome situation to be in. Considering I had all these tunes and all these ideas that I didn’t really have an outlet for.

We get out on the edge of acoustic music, or bluegrass for sure, and I think that’s part of what’s made it OK for me to be here. And it’s also part of what’s made me want to stay.

I don’t see this as a door at all. It’s almost 2010, and the music business is down. It’s not 1990 when Garth Brooks could put out almost anything, and sell 50 million records out of a Wal–Mart. Those days are gone.
I guess what I’m saying is: If the perfect case scenario came along, and I saw a huge opportunity for me – and there was no doubt it was going to be a huge deal for the country music world or whatever, and for me – that may be an opportunity that I would have to take.

But that opportunity’s never come along. The thing about the music business today is that if you’re making a living doing your own thing, then man, you’re doing better than 99 percent of the people out there.

Mountain Heart

Where: Randy Wood Guitars, 1304 E. Highway 80, Bloomingdale

When: At 7:30 p.m. Friday, Dec. 4

Tickets: $30


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