Although known for their bluegrass chops, the musicians of Mountain Heart keep it fresh by mixing up styles and genres.
The Southern bluegrass band Mountain Heart has performed across the ocean and on both coasts, in big cities and small towns, at the legendary Grand Ole Opry and 20,000-seat sports arenas, but one place they have never played is the Midwest. For them, Iowa is undiscovered territory.
“We think that it’s awesome to play in new markets for audiences that do not know us or know what to expect,” Mountain Heart’s vocalist and multi-instrumentalist Josh Shilling said over the phone from somewhere in Kentucky, where the band was headed to its next gig. “Despite our roots and our name, we don’t need mountains to be inspired. We just love to play and spread the joy that music can bring.”
The band members are well known for their virtuosity. Even before the all-acoustic Mountain Heart released its first record, the International Bluegrass Music Association (IBMA) named them the Emerging Artist of the Year in 1999. Since then, Mountain Heart has collectively and individually won or received numerous Grammy, Academy of Country Music (ACM), and Country Music Association (CMA) awards. The group has released seven albums and shared the stage with acts as diverse and talented as Lynryrd Skynrd, Merle Haggard, Brad Paisley, and Alison Krauss. Mountain Heart has also graced the Grand Ole Opry stage more than 100 times.
Shilling has researched their Cedar Rapids venue on the Internet, the recently refurbished CSPS on 1103 S. Third St. SE, on September 6. The $7 million renovation improved both the comfort of the building, with central air conditioning and additional bathrooms, as well as the sound quality of the hall. The 200-seat second floor auditorium has a new digital soundboard and speaker array, a new light board and lighting system, and several other upgrades. The place has also restored the original bar and now serves beer and wine by the glass. But that is not what interests Shilling. He’s curious about how the town has recovered after the flood of 2008.
“The Nashville flood of 2010 affected everyone I know,” Shilling said, “and afterwards all the work and money and sweat put into getting things back together made the community stronger. I heard the same was true of Cedar Rapids and the reconstruction of the building is proof of that spirit.”
He asked if any of the flood damage was still visible in the City of Five Seasons, as it is in Nashville. He noted that there is a painted line on the Grand Ole Opry that marks how high the water once reached. “The stage where Johnny Cash, Hank Williams, Sr., and George Jones once stood was completely ruined and had to be rebuilt.” The marker serves as a reminder of the flood and a tribute to the musicians who played there in the past.
“I also know the Cedar Rapids place is a center for all sorts of arts, and I think that is really cool,” Shilling said. “While we go out with a set list, the show changes every night. We vary the set depending on where we play. At an intimate space with people sitting down like this one, we play our best songs and feature the talents of each of the musicians because we know the audience can hear every word and every note. You won’t hear any ‘Sweet Home Alabama’ singalongs when we play Cedar Rapids,” he bragged, “you will just hear monster musicians who pound for pound are the most talented and energetic instrumentalists I know.”
While Mountain Heart is known for its bluegrass licks, Shilling says the group likes to mix up styles and genres to keep things lively. The group does eclectic covers that range from hard rock like ACDC’s “Back in Black” to country outlaw David Allen Coe’s “The Ride” to funk master Stevie Wonder’s “Superstition” to the blues rock of the Allman Brothers Band’s “Whipping Post.” Shilling formerly belonged to a jazz combo and has experience performing classical music as well. While he might throw in some jazz licks, he said the band will not play classical.
“Classical music is like painting by numbers. You are taught not to put yourself into the music but just play what is on the staff,” Shilling noted. “For me, good music is based on emotions and individuality. That’s why the three-chord blues still survives. Someone such as Stevie Ray Vaughn could play just one note and make you cry.”
Shilling cited the example of Mountain Heart’s fiddle player Jim Van Cleve to illustrate his point. Van Cleve is a Grammy-winning session musician and Grammy-nominated solo artist who has played with Johnny Cash, Carrie Underwood, Willie Nelson, Dolly Parton, Emmylou Harris, and dozens of other familiar names. “While Jim is technically gifted, he also has a distinctive style,” Shilling explained. “One can hear it in his tone. He expresses his feelings in an idiosyncratic way that you can instantly recognize. He puts himself into the music. He is not a violinist, but a fiddler, and that’s what makes him special. A violinist may be able to copy him, but a violinist could never be him.”
Shilling said classical music has its place, but he is more concerned about playing with feeling. While Mountain Heart may be missing the mountains when performing in Iowa, the band members will bring their hearts with them. “It’s called the heartland, isn’t it?” Shilling mused. “I presume there’s a good reason for that, and we aim to find out!”
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