The bluegrass band Mountain Heart has six members, but perhaps more notably, it also has six microphones.
Unlike the traditional bluegrass setup, the guys in Mountain Heart don’t huddle around a single microphone, waltzing around each other for instrumental solos. Rather, they all wear wireless microphones, giving them license to work the stage any way they wish.
Barry Abernathy, who plays banjo and shares lead vocals, says, “We’ve seen people doing the one mike thing, and we want to be an in-your-face type of band, so the one-mike wouldn’t work for us, to be loud enough or have enough volume in the house to excite people.”
“It also gives us a little more freedom to move around, and it’s more comparable to the larger scale acts,” says fiddler Jim VanCleve. “A lot of country acts that you’ll see, those guys are all over the stage. It’s exciting for the fans to watch something like that, because if somebody’s taking his solo, he can walk straight to the end of the stage and get in people’s faces, and they love that.”
The setup has helped when they’ve opened for George Jones, Merle Haggard or Patty Loveless, in larger venues where acoustic music can’t compete with gigantic empty spaces. Those high-profile dates are certainly career highlights, as they would be for any up-and-coming band, but at this moment, most of Mountain Heart’s roadwork comes in the form of festivals and fairs. For most of the spring and fall, and essentially the whole summer, the band is on the road.
“I think everybody in the band will agree with this, but you can’t really be too much of a homebody to do this kind of a job,” says VanCleve. “We stay really busy. We stay gone 200 days a year, I’d say, at a minimum.
“If you like home too well, you better get in another business because we don’t see it too much,” says Steve Gulley, who plays rhythm guitar and also sings.
The band’s new album, Force of Nature, balances some of the common elements of bluegrass — fast picking and a train song, for example — but its compelling story songs fit squarely into country music, whether it’s realizing that your hometown is never going to be the way it was, watching a child grow up before you realize it or a memory that simply refuses to forget. That winning combination has quickly propelled them to the forefront of the genre.
Mountain Heart formed about seven years ago, when Abernathy, Gulley and VanCleve departed the well-known bluegrass band Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver. Lawson’s outfit is often called “the farm team of bluegrass,” as many of its members often go on to bright futures.
Asked about Lawson’s influence, Gulley says, “For me, and I was there over a little two years, Doyle’s biggest thing to me is being able to put a group of people together from different backgrounds and make them sound like Quicksilver. I mean, he definitely knows what he wants. He’s a good technician when it comes to that. I can say I learned a lot watching that, on how to do it and sometimes how not to do it, but it worked.”
“That’s a different approach than we’ve used here,” VanCleve adds. “We don’t want everybody to conform to a certain thing. It’s structured, but it’s structured around the personalities that are here. Everybody’s personalities are supposed to show. That’s the whole reason we’re a band.”
Adam Steffey, the former mandolinist for Alison Krauss & Union Station, joined Mountain Heart in the beginning, along with bassist Johnny Dowdle. Almost instantly, they won the 1999 International Bluegrass Music Association (IBMA) award for emerging artist. Another followed in 2002, in the gospel performance category, for their album The Journey.
In time, both Steffey and Dowdle exited the band, but Steffey has since returned. (He’s also the IBMA’s reigning mandolin player of the year.) Jason Moore now serves as bassist, and Clay Jones has been added on guitar. The band records for Skaggs Family Records, and Ricky Skaggs produced both Force of Nature and 2002’s No Other Way.
Everybody in the band aims to bring bluegrass to a wider audience and to serve as ambassadors for the genre. They also hope to start playing at festivals with jam bands and edgier artists and have also shown up on the Americana charts recently, indicating that their music may be a bit tricky for some to categorize.
While VanCleve was a teenage fiddle prodigy not too many years ago, most of the band members are a decade or two removed from the college-age music fans they’d like to attract. That doesn’t seem to bother the band, though.
“In rock ‘n’ roll, you have to be within a certain age limit,” Steffey says. “You have to get into it kinda young. I mean, you don’t see an acid rock band, a Green Day type of band, started by guys in their 50s, with kids going, ‘Yes! Look, Papa’s mashing!'”
He continues, “Now, in bluegrass, you can start when you’re 4 or 5, or you get people who don’t start playing until they’re in their 30s, and they end up going playing out on the road. Bluegrass is a lifelong kind of music. There are no boundaries age-wise. There are no boundaries sex-wise. You get a little bit of everything.”