The concept of a “band” goes way, way back. The Norsemen used the word to mean tying things or people together, and its reference to a group of musicians can be found in the middle 1600s. And here, all these years later, it’s still what we form when we want to make music together. It’s no coincidence that the same word applies to the thing married people wear on their finger to symbolize their bond (same derivation). Bands are like multi-party marriages and molecules. They can be held strongly together or blast violently apart.
Bands make personnel changes all the time, and it’s good sport to debate whose attritions or additions are incidental and whose completely change the very premise of the group (Journey without Steve Perry? Please…). Bluegrass people, being lovers of continuity, definitely celebrate longevity of bands, as we did not long ago with Blue Highway rolling past the 25 year mark. So what to make of a band that began in 1998 as one thing with one group of musicians and is today an entirely different group of people with a much evolved sound? What do we call that? Let’s call it Mountain Heart and let’s call it awesome.
Version 1.0 was a traditional bluegrass supergroup featuring the voice of Steve Gulley and the mandolin magic of Adam Steffey. I’ll not go through all the roster shifts but a pivotal moment came when keyboardist and powerhouse singer Josh Shilling entered the picture in January 2007, debuting at a Grand Ole Opry performance. From then on, while the acoustic and bluegrass roots remained, Mountain Heart became a fabulous hybrid of southern rock and earthy soul. It’s been home to some of the hottest pickers and players of their generation, like fiddler Jim VanCleve and guitarists Clay Hess and Clay Jones. We at Roots were early and enthusiastic about the re-built Mountain; their December 2009 performance of the Allman Brothers “Whipping Post,” with Shilling’s voice scraping the sky right through the Loveless Barn roof, became one of our earliest signature archival keepers.
Today not a single member of the first MH remains, but what we know now could only have evolved through that journey. The pivot point of today’s band is the co-vocalizing of Shilling and new member Molly Cherryholmes, veteran of that unlikely rocket ship of a family bluegrass band. Her penetrating singing and fiddling play foil to Shilling’s unbridled Otis Redding vocal shredding. They’ve built a repertoire and a vibe that will be formally unveiled in May on the new album Blue Skies, the first Mountain Heart release in almost five years. I caught up with Shilling by phone this week and he’s ecstatic about every aspect of the new Mountain Heart.
“We’ve got a stage full of songwriters and artists,” he said. “I’ve never had anyone that I gel with better vocally than Molly, and I’ve heard her say the same about me. So our vocal sound has never been better.” And he adds: “I think if you took the Dead or the Allman Bros and a vocal band like the Doobie Brothers and mixed that with New Grass Revival and the Punch Brothers – maybe that’s kind of the sound.” I’ll endorse that exuberant description. Mountain Heart is looking for 2016 to be its biggest year ever.
Forgive me for focusing so much on one band, because we have a terrific bill all around. Walter Trout is a beloved veteran blues guitarist who started his career with Percy Mayfield and John Lee Hooker. Then he really made his name and spawned lifelong fans as a member of Canned Heat and John Mayall’s Blues Breakers, defining artists of an era and ethos in blues/rock where the US/Great Britain fusion arguably reached its highest expression. Trout’s long, successful solo band-leader career was upended recently by a diagnosis of Hepatitis C and the dude only survived thanks to a liver transplant. He’s come raging back with the album Battle Scars, and its fiery ruminations on the fragility and ferocity of life just scream “I’ve been there.” How cool to welcome a brilliant guitarist and singer who’s seen it all on this side and glimpsed the other.
I’m excited to greet Andy Ferrell because I’ve hung out and picked with his dad, a neighbor of my parents in Boone NC who farms Christmas trees. Proud Dad sent me Andy’s debut album before it came out and I was profoundly surprised by the maturity and personal voice of this Appalachian picker. He’s clearly influenced by area icon Doc Watson but also the country pathos of Hank and the roots comfort of The Band. Next thing I knew, our crack booking team found Andy on their own and he’s on the calendar for this week. Rounding out the project that is Wednesday night will be Luke Bell, a young songwriter who moved to Music City from Wyoming (he looks more natural in that cowboy hat than you do by the way) and found a home at Santa’s Pub playing country music in the house band. I think you’ll hear some redeeming Woody Guthrie tone and feel in his songs in the emerging artist set.
So think of it. You get to vicariously cheat death and climb a mountain at this week’s Roots with no effort other than coming down to the Factory. Maybe grow a Christmas tree too.