Backstage at Utah Arts Festival 2014: Mountain Heart’s acoustic virtuosity to close out IAMA day at festival

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Mountain Heart, June 28, 9:50 p.m., Festival Stage

Josh Shilling
Josh Shilling, Mountain Heart.
Capping an unprecedented day of Utah Arts Festival activities and performances showcasing the Intermountain Acoustic Music Association and top national performers in folk, bluegrass, and various acoustic musical styles will be two examples of the industry’s best: John McCutcheon (already featured here) and Mountain Heart – a truly fine assemblage of the best session musicians who have performed more than 130 times on the fabled Grand Ole Opry stage.

More importantly, festival fans will hear at least several new songs that likely will be featured in the band’s forthcoming album which will be recorded in the fall – the band’s first new release in more than four years.

In an interview with The Utah Review, lead singer Josh Shilling says the group (some have described its high-energy sound variously as ‘slamgrass’ and ‘acoustic overdrive) is going for a new studio approach that will sound more naturally musical than the “over-analyzed, over-dubbed” effect of trying to perfect a polished recording. “We’re still choosing songs but we’re going into the studio, performing them completely live with our best instruments, and, obviously we will have rehearsed them well enough, so we’re all going to bring our A-game around the mike,” he explains. “It gives us the chance to let the bottom fall out and give us the chance to allow our natural spirit to get that unbelievable feeling of finding a summit in the music we make.”

Many already know the tremendous musical prowess of the band’s members but it’s worth a quick summary review. A gifted songwriter and performer, Shilling, who joined the band in 2007, also has toured and played with many greats including Lynyrd Skynyrd, The Marshall Tucker Band, The Avett Brothers, The Lee Boys, The Traveling McCourys and guitarist Tony Rice. Fiddler Jim Van Cleve, is a bedrock Nashville session musician, who played on the 2004 Country Album of the Year Livin’, Lovin’, Losin’: The Songs Of The Louvin Brothers, earning his first Grammy. He also recorded fiddle for a smash-hit single drawn from American Idol’s Carrie Underwood – Some Hearts (2005) – his first participation in a multi-platinum seller where he was prominently featured on the Billboard Magazine top hit single “Don’t Forget to Remember Me”. Barry Abernathy, 1997’s Banjo Player of the Year award recipient from the Society for the Preservation of Blue Grass Music in America, played for IIIrd Tyme Out and Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver, before leaving to form Mountain Heart. Bassist Jason Moore is a first-call recording musician who has worked on the the International Bluegrass Music Association (IBMA) award-winning Knee Deep In Bluegrass as well as on solo albums of IBMA Fiddle Player of the Year Michael Cleveland. Aaron Ramsey, who started playing mandolin professionally at 13 and won the MerleFest mandolin competition at 17, was a founding member of The Linville Ridge Band, playing mandolin and later played with Randy Kohrs’ band, the Lites, playing bass, before joining Mountain Heart.

Mountain Heart.
Mountain Heart.

As for writing songs, Shilling says he always is guided by Darrell Scott’s counsel that the “best songs are little gifts from God.” A good example from his newest work is the ballad ‘No One To Listen To,’ with a “lovesick” and homesick vibe” about a struggling musician who is passionate about his career but wonders if that sense of loneliness is worth the sacrifice. Shilling was inspired to write the song after getting home from a Christmas party last year. “As I started fumbling through the chords, I realize that there are many musicians who always wrestle with the question of how many more years am I going to struggle. One day you can own the world and the next be the loneliest person.”

Another new song is “Have You Heard About The Old Hometown,” inspired by the feelings he experienced returning to his hometown of Martinsville, Virginia and seeing all the boarded up businesses and restaurants he remembered his family used to patronize.

Mindful of the band’s extensive grassroots base, Shilling says Utah Arts Festival fans will see Mountain Heart at its highest energy. Salt Lake City is the band’s second stop on the current phase of the ‘Rocky Mountain Heart Tour,’ which started in Idaho Springs, Colorado, and makes stop in Nevada and Wyoming before heading east. “For us, it’s pretty simple. We love to play music and a ball, yelling and stomping on the stage.”

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