Their most recent CD, That Just Happened, may have come out several months ago, but you’ll still be hard-pressed to find music any fresher than Mountain Heart’s latest 7-song effort. The six-piece band of instrumental virtuosos may have started as a more-or-less mainstream bluegrass configuration, but since their founding in 1999, they have had a personnel change or two—including the addition of standout lead singer, Josh Shilling—along with an infusion of influences ranging from jazz to soulful rock. The result is nothing short of totally original and totally brilliant. Josh, along with Jim Van Cleve on fiddle, Barry Abernathy on banjo, Jason Moore on bass, Aaron Ramsey on mandolin and dobro, and Jake Stargel on guitar, brings an attitude and energy that, while reminiscent of groups like the iconic Newgrass Revival, is all Mountain Heart. Having shared the stage with artists ranging from Alison Krauss to John Fogerty and from Lynyrd Skynyrd to Merle Haggard, Mountain Heart’s eclectic brand of music is not something easily pigeonholed—and that’s exactly how they like it. Jim Van Cleve recently took time to chat with Nashville.com about the band’s history, evolution and current sound. Here’s some of what he had to say. And, if you want to check the band out yourself, they’ll be at the Rutledge tonight. Go see them—you’ll be glad you did.
Nash: Let’s go back to the early days. Tell me about your first gig together as a band and how your sound has evolved since then. When you first got together, would you have seen yourselves doing what you’re doing now?
Jim: Our first gig was early in 1999. I can honestly say, if I had looked forward 12 years to where we are now, I don’t think I would’ve seen us where we are. We all wanted to push the envelope a little, but as a 19-year-old fiddle player, I don’t know that I could’ve defined the music as what it is now . . . Our music is so eclectic at times. There’s a sincerity in what we do and an urgency to get this music out, and that’s probably greater now than it ever was.
Nash: Have you really been on the Opry about 130 times?
Jim: We have. And it never gets old. What band coming together that’s even aware of country music doesn’t think playing the Grand Ole Opry would be a great opportunity. The first time, obviously, you can hardly breathe. And after all these times, every now and then, something taps on your shoulder and says look around, don’t take this for granted. We have two new band members now, and their first shows with Mountain Heart happened to be on the Opry. On Josh’s first night with us, we got a standing ovation and a call back at the Ryman. They canceled a commercial so we could go back and do another song.
Nash: I have to tell you, I love “Whippin’ Post.” I loved the original and I don’t know how many of you guys are old enough to be that familiar with the original. But you play and sing the heck out of it. Would you have had the nerve to play that on your first Opry appearance?
Jim: My dad had it on cassette and I listened to it a lot. But I didn’t even know the name of it then. But, no, definitely not. We wouldn’t have done that on the Opry, partly because it’s way too long and doesn’t fit their format. And on our first album, we wouldn’t have even conceived of possibly recording it, but I’m so happy that’s where we are now.
Nash: Who brought that song to the table for the band?
Jim: That was Josh. I have to give him full credit for that one. He just said it might be a cool thing to do, and he knew he could sing it. He had kinda played it a couple times on stage in one form or another as a solo thing on piano. He just said, “why don’t we try it as a band and see what happens?” So we organically put together our own version of it. It changed and changed and changed and finally, we knew we were going in the studio soon and just said, “we’ve gotta cut that.” We cut it live. Of the hundreds of records I’ve played on, that is a real highlight and a really cool experience.
Nash: I saw you do it on YouTube for the first time and was just blown away. And I never would have expected it out of you. So I guess it does mean you’ve evolved since I first saw you several years ago.
Jim: Definitely, we’ve probably evolved more in the last five years than in the seven years before that. Part of that is bringing in a new lead singer and inherently a new sound. Josh is obviously not a traditional country or bluegrass singer. He’s got a rock, blues-influenced voice, but he can kill a ballad, too. Very versatile and plays piano well. It just opened up a lot of doors for us musically. And it took a while for us to get comfortable in that new skin. But now we’re not scared of that and not afraid of the fact that we’re different. We decided to go for it and not play it safe.
Nash: One of the things I like about it is that it reminds me of other things but doesn’t copy other things. I can hear a little of John Cowan and Newgrass Revival in there . . .
Nash: And even in your playing. I took about six years of classical violin lessons, so I can appreciate how tough it is to do what you do. But I hear a little Jean-Luc Ponty in there. I don’t know if you’re into his stuff at all . . .
Jim: Oh, absolutely, man. That’s the one thing. I think musicians can dig a lot of what we’re into now. And it sounds bad at times . . . to be interviewed and be in the band at the same time is a tough one. Because I really do feel that we have some of the best musicians that you’ll ever hear.
Nash: And there’s not a weak link. I’ve heard you all take instrumental breaks and you’ve never had to cover for anybody or shield anyone from being exposed.
Jim: Yeah, exactly. And when you throw in the fact that our banjo player has one finger . . . I forget, and I think we forget because we’re up there and just tryin’ to hold on and do our thing. But people come up and comment like you just did, they get that from our performances. We kinda end up taking each other for granted at times, but when I’ve been off for a couple weeks, I’m itchin’ to go play with ‘em again. It’s not like anything else I’ve ever been exposed to.
Nash: One of the things I appreciate about the music is the range, all the influences you’ve all brought to the table. You can tell there’s some jazz, some bluegrass and country. But even on your record, from “Whippin’ Post” to “Even If It Breaks My Heart,” which is just gorgeous, such a pretty song. I know you guys didn’t write that one, but a great performance. And I’m drawn equally to both of those extremes, and you guys do it all equally well.
Jim: It is rare, I think. And you talked about Jean-Luc. But everybody is really well-versed. I can say that about all these guys. They’re well-studied, well-read. And that makes its way onto the record. Of course, we have the bluegrass heritage, but there’s now kind of a jam band element to the whole thing. We don’t even bother trying to define what we are, but that diversity is what keeps it interesting for this bunch of musicians.
Nash: Have there been times when an audience that maybe hasn’t been familiar with you . . . at a festival or something . . . has expected you to come out and play pretty much straight ahead bluegrass—which you obviously can do very well—but then you’ll kick into something, whether it’s “Whippin’ Post” or something else that definitely strays from traditional bluegrass, and you can tell on their faces they are taken aback and totally stunned by what they’re hearing? And do they always embrace it?
Jim: Yeah. That’s a really cool question, I’ll be honest. That’s a really cool question. The answer to that is absolutely, yeah. Not so much at festivals, because we started there and those people were aware of us and saw the transition occurring. But sometimes when we go back somewhere we’ve been before, but we haven’t been there for awhile, they’ll go, “Whoa! That’s different!” (Laughs) But when we hit the stage in front of Lynyrd Skynyrd, we walked out there and, yes we have a banjo and we have a fiddle on the stage, you could tell people were thinking, “Am I at the wrong concert?” You can feel that vibe in the house. “Ladies and gentlemen, Mountain Heart!” We walked out there, and it’s not what they expected. It’s not country music, it’s not bluegrass, it’s not rock ‘n’ roll. It’s a hybrid of the whole thing, with a lot of attitude and energy.
Nash: Talk a bit about your WSM radio show.
Jim: It’s an every month thing at this point. Their program director was looking for some new ideas. And Josh and I had gone in and done one hour-long show. We called it the Mountain Heart Hostile Takeover of WSM. We just had a blast. And we were approached later about hosting a show and it sounded awesome. So we’re in month number nine now I think. We’ve had the Doobie Brothers on and Diamond Rio and Del McCoury and Sam Bush. It’s been a neat thing. We’re hoping to do a second year if we can.
Nash: Well, don’t hold out. If they offer you a contract, sign it. Don’t miss spring training. It’ll come back to haunt you.
Jim: I don’t know if we’re in the position to do that. We’ll definitely sign. (laughs)
Nash: What are you most looking forward to?
Jim: Wednesday, the 12th—my birthday—we’re doing the Americana Music Association showcase at the Rutledge downtown. We’ll be there with Marty Stuart and Connie Smith as part of that lineup. So that’ll be a cool thing.
Nash: Great. I’ll be there. Thanks for doing this, I enjoyed it.
Jim: Great. I’ll see you there.
EDITORS NOTE: Would you like to win tickets to see Mountain Heart at the coolest venue in Tennessee? On October 22nd the boys will be playing Bluegrass Underground along with The Westbound Rangers. Bluegrass Underground is a radio show recorded live 333 feet below ground at Cumberland Caverns in McMinnville, TN inside of what was named by the first people to behold the natural amphitheatre, The Volcano Room. Here water and time entwined 3.5 million years ago to create one of the most acoustically pure natural spaces on earth. No man-made sound reaches the Volcano Room and the living rock hued amid the eons is jagged and uneven, providing limited echo. This experience is well worth the road trip no matter where you’re coming from so email email@example.com and let him know you want to see Mountain Heart. Nashville.com only has a small number of tickets to give away so get ‘em while they last.