Album of the week: Mountain Heart

This is the first in what I’ll try to make a weekly feature here, spotlighting a recent release.

Mountain Heart
Road That Never Ends
Rural Rhythm

Unless you’re a bluegrass fan, chances are you’re not familiar with Mountain Heart, who just released Road That Never Ends: The Live Album. Unlike Nickel Creek, Sam Bush, or Alison Krauss, they haven’t made that leap from independent bluegrass labels to the mainstream market, despite having many of the same qualities (Well, they don’t have a pretty girl in the band, but several of the guys are mighty nice looking…). They are marketing the band a little bit like Nickel Creek this time, however—the word ‘bluegrass doesn’t appear in the cover text until the end of a list of influences cited alongside rock, jamband, country, blues, and jazz. Instead, the bland, “Acoustic music,” is used in its place, a cop-out that could place them in the same category as Will Ackerman or George Winston from the New Age-synonymous Windham Hill label. In keeping with the slicker image of many contemporary bluegrass acts, the album cover makes them look more like a New Country act or a Contemporary Christian band, instead of a killer band of bluegrass pickers—none of them is even holding an instrument, even. I don’t expect a bluegrass band in 2007 to wear bolo ties and hats like the Bluegrass Boys, but it is still a little unsettling when you look more like Rascal Flatts or Mercy Me and still sing, “Mountain Man.”
Originally formed in 1998 by members of Doyle Lawson and Quicksilver, Mountain Heart was immediately embraced by the bluegrass establishment as a fresh, contemporary voice, and the band has delivered on that acceptance with a string of bluegrass and bluegrass gospel albums featuring both excellent traditional instrumental skills (Fiddler Jim Van Cleve won a Grammy for his 2006 solo album No Apologies) and new compositions that added to the canon of great bluegrass songs.
The new disc serves as an introduction to the newest member of Mountain Heart, Josh Shilling, who plays guitar and piano, bringing an unusual texture to the band along with strong lead vocals. Perhaps it was a wise move to get that “new singer” stigma off their backs before going back into the studio, or maybe they just wanted to get something out and didn’t have the luxury of studio time available to add the new guy. Either way, it turns out to be a wise decision, as the live setting knocks some of the contemporary sheen off the band’s sound, proving that behind the slick recordings there’s a really hot live act. Bluegrass is a genre that demands virtuoso instrumental prowess due to the sometimes impossibly fast tempos and frequent soloing required, and the members of Mountain Heart are all more than capable.
Shilling gets a couple of spots to show off, including the newly written blues, “It Works Both Ways,” and a version of the Allman Brothers Band’s “Whipping Post,” a nearly solo Shilling performance which showcases his piano skills.
It’s the addition of Shilling on piano that is the riskiest part of this new twist in the Mountain Heart sound, and purists will cry foul, claiming that a piano isn’t a “bluegrass instrument.” So far, however, it doesn’t sound like they have integrated the piano into the traditional bluegrass, they have just added a piano number or two to the typical set, something any bluegrass band will do in a live show if there’s a piano nearby and someone in the group who can play it.
Another thing most bluegrass groups do is gospel, and Mountain Heart is no exception. Their second album, The Journey, was an all-gospel release but it is currently out of print, making the inclusion of the fun a capella “Gospel Train,” from that disc a nice treat. “God and Everybody,” from 2006’s Wide Open, isn’t quite the stark, ominous gospel of their contemporaries Blue Highway but it’s pretty close, with some chill-inducing vocal harmonies.
This isn’t the album that will introduce Mountain Heart to the mainstream, but it will certainly make their fans in the bluegrass scene happy. As for Shilling and his place in the group, that will become clearer once they get into a studio and come out with a full album of new material.

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