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Mountain Heart - Interview

  by Lisa Torem

published: 28 / 8 / 2011

Mountain Heart - Interview


Josh Shilling, the singer with acclaimed Nashville-based bluegrass band Mountain Heart, speaks about joining the already established group and their latest studio album, 'That Just Happened'

When you hear and see Mountain Heart for the very, first time you might ask: “What just happened?” So, the fact that their newest album is entitled ‘That Just Happened’ makes perfect sense. Somehow, this six-piece band of multi-instrumentalists; Josh Shilling (lead vocals, guitar, keys), Aaron Ramsey (mandolin, guitar, dobro), Jake Stargel (guitars), Jim VanCleve (fiddle), Jason Moore (bass) and Barry Abernathy (banjo), who pledge faithful allegiance to bluegrass, but are so easily tempted by blues and jazz, makes one’s head spin. From the time the sextet enters the stage, the non-stop, instrumental posturing floods the room, large or tiny. Mountain Heart is VanCleve’s cascading violin, Abernathy’s country banjo and Moore’s grumbling upright bass partying hard. Everyone is onboard, especially the audience. Josh Shilling became the icing on an already, delicious cake. Mountain Heart had already been formed in the late 1990s, but then, in the winter of 2007, the bourbon-soaked vocals of this frontman, whose New Orleans style piano defied the “grasser” image, changed the game. Their live debut, ‘Road That Never Ends’, has been critically acclaimed and has received major play on the air waves. Dressed in faded jeans, work shirts, army boots and baseball caps, with a diversity of age and build, the six lads exude a “come as you are” friendliness. MH have toured with the likes of Lynyrd Skynyrd, Marshall Tucker, Tony Rice and Travit Tritt. It was under their own label, MH Mountain Group, that they produced their current release. In addition, since the mid 2000s, the group has garnered IBMA awards for Entertainer of the Year, Vocal Group of the Year and Instrumental Group of the Year. The Nashville-based sextet has also been courageous enough to tackle a song which Greg Allman wrote on an ironing board with burnt matches; a cover which takes the listener on a rampage of time signatures. Josh Shilling spoke to Pennyblackmusic writer Lisa Torem about Mountain Heart’s riveting version of ‘Whipping Post’, some of his greatest recollections thus far and his future works. PB: Hi Josh. I’ve been to the Opry and can contest that it’s unlike any other experience. You and mandolinist Aaron Ramsey, separately, debuted with Mountain Heart at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville. What was it like for you to play on a stage that is so historical? How would you describe the setting and audience members? JS: After the band met and rehearsed some in the Fall of 2006, we decided that January 1st of 2007 would be the best time for me to come on board for all parties involved. Oddly enough, after announcing to our fan-base online that there would be a new lead singer joining Mountain Heart, I noticed that my first appearance with Mountain Heart would be at the Grand Ole Opry! I remember thinking, “This might turn out to be a nightmare”. That night we had thousands of people listening in online, on the radio, as well as a packed house at the Opry. The band let fans know that there was a new singer being revealed, but no one knew who I was or what I might sound like. This was definitely a sink-or-swim moment for us concerning the fans and definitely with the staff at the Opry. One funny thing that I should mention is how naïve and “green” I was. I grew up a piano player in R&B and country bands. This was my first time on stage holding a guitar and my first time on stage without drums or amplifiers! At the time, Mountain Heart was primarily a bluegrass acoustic act. They called us to walk out on stage and I yelled to the guys, “Wait, where do I stand when I get out there?” I’m laughing just thinking about it. We started our slot in the show with a MH standard ‘Here to Ride the Train.’ The band had rehearsed only a handful of songs with me as their singer, one of which was an original song of mine, ‘Who’s The Fool Now?’, that is about losing love and all the hurt associated with that. The song has a very classic country feel to it that’s very reminiscent of an older Vince Gill recording which was perfect for the Opry stage. The crowd was silent and I felt really good about the performance while we were playing this song. At the very end, the band stopped, and there was a long, high vocal feature that I’ve blown on stage a hundred times since, but luckily that night at the Opry we all nailed it. I closed my eyes and went for the end of the song - then someone tapped my shoulder while I was still singing the last bit of the line and said, “Hey Shilling, look up.” When I opened my eyes, the entire place was standing up and screaming out for the band! A standing ovation is truly a rarity on that legendary stage. As I eased towards the wings of the stage - because we were only supposed to play a two- song spot - the manager of the Opry said, “Get back out there! We’re skipping commercial break and giving you guys another song.” That was also a very special and unusual occurrence on that show. In hindsight, we were very fortunate that night, even more than I ever realised. Mountain Heart had always appealed to the audiences at the Opry and luckily we won them over again that night in a big way. If that performance as MH’s new singer/songwriter hadn’t have been so positive, my first appearance at the Opry might have been the band’s last. PB: Mountain Heart hosts a national public radio show, ‘That Just Happened with Mountain Heart’. What is the format of this show, how do you choose your guests and how has this experience been in general in terms of generating interest for the band and guest artists? JS: The ‘That Just Happened Show’has been a blast. Our fans online seem to love this show and the ratings have gone through the roof over this series. Our show is aired from 2-3 pm CST the first Tuesday of every month. We spend the weeks in between each show brainstorming for show ideas and booking guests to come in. We’ve had the Doobie Brothers, Sam Bush, Diamond Rio, and just last month, Del and Ronnie McCoury were in doing a Bill Monroe special with us in celebration of what would have been Bill’s 100th birthday. Del was an amazing choice for this show because he was in Monroe’s band in his early twenties. We’re planning to do a show with the Band Perry, as well as a songwriter show before the end of the year. As much as we try to plan out the shows, at the end of the day, it’s an hour of us running WSM Studios live on the radio and chatting with artists so ANYTHING might happen and it usually does! We’ve had lots of bloopers that turned out to be hilarious and the story telling is priceless. PB: Let’s focus on your songwriting talents. In 2005, you wrote songs for a group called: Balancing Act. How did you approach songwriting at that time, and did you find writing for Mountain Heart’s “The Road That Never Ends” required another way of thinking? JS: Interestingly enough, Balancing Act, as well as several of the other groups I was recording my original songs with, were, in no way, country or bluegrass acts so the content, as well as the approach to writing for them, was quite a bit different. Balancing Act featured bass solos, Hammond organ, and R&B vocals. So, the chord voicings as well as the vocal melodies were way more complicated than the typical three or four chord country or bluegrass tune. I also worked on the east coast for a year or so in the beach music circuit. There are so many things that are particular to that genre and region to keep in mind when writing for a beach music act. Beach Music has it’s own dance called ‘Shaggin’ that thousands of fans know and practice EVERY show! The best tempo for that dance is around 120 beats per minute. The lyric content definitely needs to be based around having fun. Weekend play, trips to the beach, and just the night life on the coast are perfect topics for beach music lovers. For that reason I found myself writing feel good lyrics with that tempo in mind as well as the horn sections in mind. Horns play a lot out of B flat and E flat. Neither of these keys are desirable, most of the time, in country or bluegrass music, but they’re perfect for beach music. Speaking of keys, in bluegrass or acoustic groups like Mountain Heart, banjos and the robust tone of a dreadnaught acoustic guitar simply sound the best around the key of B. B major is not a desirable key on the piano at all, but since I play piano with Mountain Heart, I play out of that key to accommodate the rest of the guys. About the ‘Road That Never Ends’, that project came about pretty quick. I’d only been with the guys for a few months and we’d proved the song ‘Who’s The Fool Now?’ nightly on stage. We had people asking for this song so obviously we had to include it on the record. Jim VanCleve and I got together a few times when I first joined the band to write. We wrote ‘Road That Never Ends’ which turned out to be a great title track for this live, on tour record. The second time we met, we wrote ‘While The Getting’s Good’. Both of those songs soon after became #1 songs in the bluegrass and Americana charts. A newcomer to bluegrass at that point, I noticed that most of the more popular songs were driving in terms of tempo and aggression, and featured the musicians in the band a lot more than I’d been accustomed to. Both the vocal harmonies as well as the chord voicings were what most ‘grassers would refer to as “mean”. They don’t voice a lot of major thirds (happier sounding note choice) on their instruments which makes for more of a drone or fifth sound. At any rate, we used a lot of the genre’s “mean” chords and wrote harmonies a fifth away from the melody. It seems the lyric content is more story based in bluegrass. These stories include lots of wild west tales, murder ballads, and stories about surviving life in Appalachia. I ended up with another cut on ‘Road That Never Ends’ called ‘It Works Both Ways’ which is just a raunchy Robert Johnson style blues tune which really showcased the band’s diversity. PB: You are involved in the current Nashville songwriting scene. Can you elaborate on your role in any recent projects? JS: Since I moved to Nashville, I think I’ve finally found myself as a songwriter. The greatest songwriters in the world beat the streets of Music Row every morning. I’m down there with some of the greats weekly creating new tunes to pitch to our favourite artists. It’s true that a #1 song on the country charts means you don’t have to worry about your mortgage payments for quite awhile, but, aside from the money potential, I truly love the writing process. There’s nothing more rewarding than walking into a room with nothing, and walking out with a great song that was plucked from thin air and molded into something special. I write with lots of artists and writers around town. I recently had one of my songs recorded by country music stars Diamond Rio. The song is called ‘I Made It’ and I co-wrote it with members of Rio. It’s the story of their lives, where they’ve been and where they are now, the highs, the lows, and the support and love from their families and fans that kept them going. What I’m most excited about as far as songwriting is concerned, is my solo record that I’m finishing up. It’s cliché when people say, “I love this project and these are my favorite songs,” but it’s so true for me. My solo project features my absolute favourite songs that I’ve ever written. I opened my own label, and produced and wrote these songs specifically for this project and I couldn’t be any happier with how it’s coming together. Keep a look out for this project on iTunes or my website www.joshshilling.com PB: For someone just discovering the bluegrass genre, what are the traditional songs one must learn? Do they vary from region to region? JS: In traditional bluegrass the songs seem like they don’t vary a ton. I’ve played with ‘grassers all over the country, and they all seem to love Tony Rice, Ricky Skaggs, Jimmy Martin, JD Crowe, and groups like the Bluegrass Album Band. Tunes like ‘Freenborn Man’, ‘Blue Ridge Cabin Home’, ‘Little Maggie’, and pretty much anything else in B that’s fast fits into that category! PB: Mountain Heart has been involved with a charity called the Boot Campaign. What is the purpose of the organization? JS: The Boot Campaign was formed by a group of women in Texas that wanted to help out families of wounded soldiers. Basically, you can go online to www.bootcampaign.com and order a pair of official combat boots, and the proceeds are donated to families across the country that are dealing with family members who lost their lives or are living with injuries from combat. They’ve had hundreds of celebrities sign up to help support the cause and take photos wearing their boots for promotions. Mountain Heart did a shoot at the Grand Ole Opry in their boots back in the Spring of this year and I got to wear George Jones’ signed boots! We definitely support the cause and want to encourage all to go online, check this out, and purchase some boots. PB: You have toured with and performed in bands since you were seventeen. How does your experience with Mountain Heart compare with these other ventures? What has been your best experience playing live? JS: Before MH, I was typically featured as a keyboard player that could sing. With MH I’m considered their lead singer. There’s a ton of pressure that comes with fronting a band. You have to interact with the audience and try to get them completely engaged with what you’re doing. I also had to learn how to sing high tenor all night. I came from being a singer that sang with feel and riffed around the melody. Singing tenor in MH, I have to sing tight harmonies WAY up in the top of my range, so that particular role in the band has been a tough one. When singing nearly every night, you have to keep your body and voice in shape. It’s tough to entertain if you’re dead tired, hoarse, and out of shape! So, I have to spend lots of time prepping for long tours. So many great memories come to mind when I think about some of my best experiences playing live. Before joining Mountain Heart, I was involved with a short tour supporting Mic Gillette’s (Elton John, Santana, the Doobie Brothers, Tower of Power, Huey Lewis) solo CD. He contacted me about playing piano, Hammond organ, and singing on his solo shows. I immediately jumped at the chance when he told me that Bill Champlin (Chicago, Sons Of Champlin), Jane Powell, and The Tower of Power horn section and lead singer were coming along. With Mountain Heart, obviously playing on the Opry is amazing every time, but our tour with Lynyrd Skynyrd in 2008 was unbelievable. We had 10,000 people every night in the palm of our hands and ready to party from start to finish. Most recently, MH opened up for Marshall Tucker in my hometown of Martinsville, VA at the Nascar track there in front of 40,000 people. By the end of the night, I was fronting MT/MH and singing lead to their hit ‘Can’t You See’ along with thousands of friends. PB: Who were your favourite singers and pianists when you were growing up and who do you listen to now? What were your early memories of performing? JS: My dad, aunt, uncle, and grandfather were all musicians so I was around music nearly all the time. My aunt had an old upright that I was drawn to early on. Early on, I realized that I could play most songs by ear and by the time I was 10, I was winning statewide talent shows by playing piano and singing out Jerry Lee Lewis hits. The coolest part of the show had to be me at age 10, kicking the piano bench backwards and tearing up some honky-tonk piano while standing. As a kid, I loved Ray Charles, Michael McDonald, and groups like the Allman Brothers. Nearly twenty years later, I still love all those acts and I’ve been able to meet and/or play with most of my heroes other than Ray Charles. In recent years, I’ve been listening to and falling for a lot of the jazz greats. Miles, and dozens of other jazz monsters fill my iPod. PB: Many people are surprised to find that Mountain Heart plays classic rock/blues hits like: ‘Whipping Post’ which was made famous by the Allman Brothers. Mountain Heart’s version, live and in the studio, branches off in so many unexpected directions in terms of tempo and texture JS: I think the arrangement of this tune comes from playing it out ‘The Letter’ in the middle of the recording were things that happened by accident. I used to play ‘Whipping Post’ on MH gigs alone at the piano. You can hear the first improptu version of this on our live album from 2007. I literally just played whatever came to mind. Once we started covering the song as a band, I think we just decided to let the song go in multiple directions. I think by doing this, we showed off just how diverse each member of MH can be. PB: What was the original plan – to improvise, and then set the piece - or is the song meant to be interpreted differently each time? JS: We definitely have a general structure that we created for our arrangement of ‘Whipping Post’, but our goal is to keep this structure open enough in order to allow each guy to be as expressive as he wants from night to night. It has become a staple at our shows and continues to become more and more interesting each night. PB: ‘That Just Happened’, your new CD, features many styles. What was the process for selecting the tracks and which are your favourites? JS: This project was completely for our fans. Because we play to so many different audiences in different markets, we found ourselves playing songs that appeal to a diverse group of people. Some bluegrass festivals, some country tours, Performing Arts Centers, and even some rock tours line our schedule. For several years, we’d play ‘Whipping Post’ at a big rock fest and then turn around and play ‘Little Sadie’ on stage with Tony Rice at a bluegrass show. Then we’d get to a country show, and play songs like ‘The Ride’ and ‘Even If It Breaks My Heart’. So when we decided to get on Facebook, Twitter, and every other social outlet to ask the fans what songs they wanted us to record, we got an overwhelming response. From all over, we were getting requests. So we basically let our fans choose their favourite songs that we’d seen work on stage. Some songs like ‘The Ride’ were decided on in the studio last minute solely by our friends and fans posting and emailing us requests. PB: Thank you. The two photographs that accompany this article were taken by Thomas Petello and Anthony Ladd respectively.

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Mountain Heart - Interview

Mountain Heart - Interview

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That Just Happened (2011)
Fantastic sixth studio album from roots-based Nashville bluegrass band, Mountain Heart

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