As a fan and as a musician, Mountain Heart singer and multi-instrumentalist Josh Shilling is familiar with long-running acts that have withstood many personnel changes.
Although he loves the original lineup of The Allman Brothers Band, Shilling feels as though the group’s legacy and talent pool “got deeper and better with every single addition.”
“What The Allmans had morphed into and what they were up until the last couple of years was one of the greatest musical experiences I’ve ever witnessed,” adds Shilling, who first saw the ABB in concert about 20 years ago. “They brought in the best of the best each time they needed to replace a member, and that kept the band growing stronger through each transition.”
He has a similar view when it comes to Mountain Heart, which formed in the late 1990s. The bluegrass band no longer has any of its founders, so that makes Shilling, who joined in 2007, the most-tenured member.
“Mountain Heart has always been a musician’s band full of session players with energy, and I think we’ve continued and added to that legacy,” he says. “The differences now are we have incredible vocal abilities to add to that instrumental force with young faces. Each member of the current band is a lead singer. We’re all writers, producers and session players. The sound created is very cohesive, but still manages to meld multiple genres in a special way.”
Ever since he joined Mountain Heart, Shilling has had a hand in band activities both on and off the stage. But even though he’s the veteran member among the current quintet, he doesn’t view himself as the leader.
“I’ve worked relentlessly to keep Mountain Heart a true partnership and a democracy,” he says. “I want us to be a team, and I want people to be vested and proud of what we do together. My favorite bands and businesses function this way, and I believe it’s the healthiest approach. But I am definitely more involved these days with the type of show we put on and the music we create and deliver to our supporters.”
A few weeks before Mountain Heart went to Asheville, N.C., to record its new album, Blue Skies (released May 6 on Compass Records), the band made another lineup change, adding fiddle player Molly Cherryholmes.
“We always knew that Molly would be an incredible addition to MH,” Shilling says. “We just didn’t know if she’d take the job if it were ever available. When our original fiddle player stepped down, she was our first call.
“We had a brief rehearsal in Nashville, and she texted me during it, saying, ‘I wanna talk to you when this ends.’ I figured there was probably going to be some conversation about how she wanted to do it, but couldn’t commit or something like that, but she actually said, ‘Yes, I’m in. I want this, and I think we’re going to gel perfectly.’ She was spot-on.”
While adding Cherryholmes was an easy decision, choosing a title for the new album was not.
“We had a bunch of great songs and a list of possible titles a mile long, but we couldn’t decide,” Shilling says. “I had started writing the song ‘Blue Skies’ simply because I wanted something fun and uplifting to play. I didn’t really even plan to pitch it to Mountain Heart, but I showed it to [guitarist] Seth Taylor, and one afternoon during a rehearsal, we toyed around with it some during a couple of breaks.”
Eventually, the entire band joined in and played the song a few times. Then guitarist-mandolin player Aaron Ramsey spoke up.
“He said, ‘Man, why in the world are we wasting time on another cover song? Is this an Allman Brothers tune or something?’ ” Shilling recalls. “I laughed and said, ‘I wrote this last week, and it’s just something I dig. It has a great message.’ We all laughed it off and continued playing it.”
After the rehearsal, Shilling was looking over a list of outstanding items for the record, and he noticed someone had scratched out the potential album titles and in all caps wrote BLUE SKIES.
“Within a few seconds, we all agreed that was it,” he says. “We started on the album artwork and the tour and publicity approach. We knew right then with the lyric content and the title of Blue Skies, we had a new record complete as well as a new band mission statement.”
— By Chris M. Junior
Mountain Heart on tour (schedule subject to change):
• May 21: Grand Ole Opry — Nashville, Tennessee
• May 28: Acoustic Café Amphitheater — Haleyville, Alabama
• June 3: Odgen Music Festival — Ogden, Utah
• June 10: Albuquerque BioPark Zoo — Albuquerque, New Mexico
• June 18: Tri-State Wing-Off — Cumberland, Maryland
• July 8: Jackson River Sports Complex — Covington, Virginia
• July 9: Red Wing Roots Festival — Mt. Solon, Virginia
• July 16: Spruce Pine BBQ Championship and Bluegrass Festival — Spruce Pine, North Carolina