Seven years into their career, bluegrass band Mountain Heart are used to bucking the conventions held dear by the most conservative fans of the genre. Everyone in the band wears wireless microphones on stage, rather than gathering around one microphone to sing. Their unmatched outfits are far more casual than the typical array of dark, two-piece suits. And for their newest album, Wide Open -- all you traditionalists might want to sit down for this -- they hired Rascal Flatts' former producer Mark Bright to twist the knobs.
The ball started rolling when Mountain Heart's fiddler Jim Van Cleve ran into Bright during a demo session for Sara Evans. (Bright has also produced Jo Dee Messina and Carrie Underwood.) With the encouragement of Evans' manager, Van Cleve gave Bright one of Mountain Heart's albums.
"He told me later he already had the record but wanted to have that copy, too," Van Cleve remembers. "Apparently, he knew who the band was. He had our two records before that one and said he was already a big fan of ours."
At the time, Mountain Heart were looking for a new producer, after several records with Ricky Skaggs at the helm. Van Cleve worked up the nerve to ask if Bright would be interested in collaborating.
"He almost cut me off and said, 'I would jump at the opportunity,'" Van Cleve remembers. "I didn't know if he was for real or not, but it turned out that he was."
Production started in early 2005, right around the busy bluegrass festival season. The band -- which also includes Barry Abernathy on banjo and vocals, Steve Gulley on guitar and vocals, Clay Jones on guitar, Jason Moore on bass and Adam Steffey on mandolin and vocals -- brought a handful of songs they wanted to record, while Bright and his assistant came up with hundreds more to choose from. During their time apart, the band members would individually choose their favorites from Bright's compilation CDs. When they'd get together again, they'd pare down the choices to a few dozen favorites.
Bright also reduced his fee and called in favors from engineers and other friends in the business to keep costs within a bluegrass budget while still making it sound huge. In the end, Wide Open is the band's most expansive (if not expensive) album yet.
"We wanted to make one that sounded bigger than anything we'd ever made," Steffey says. "We wanted better songs and better production and to take as much time as we needed to get it how we wanted it. Not really rush anything. Not that the last ones were that rushed or that bad, but there was a definite [feeling of] 'OK you've been at this long enough. We've gotta get this done. We've gotta get this out.'"
"Nothing against Ricky," Gulley says. "He's a hero to a lot of people, me included. He's an icon to a lot of us, too. ... Having Mark in there -- where you felt like you could talk and be red [a redneck] -- it freed us up a whole lot to sing and play the way we normally do on stage."
That may be true overall, but for the first 33 seconds of the title track, an unsuspecting listener might wonder what's up with the soothing, Muzak-like arrangement, especially from a band that prides itself on intense live shows.
Steffey has a simple explanation: "We were over at Jimmy's doing these pre-production things before we went into the studio, and Mark says, 'Guys, work with me on this. I want you to try this. A little curveball.' We started doing it, and I was sitting there thinking, 'What in the hell is this?' And after we cut it in the studio later, Mark starts laughing, just dying laughing. He's like, 'I can't believe I got you guys to cut that right there!'"
Although everybody cracks up at the story, Gulley says, "Mark asked us to do a lot of things we probably weren't comfortable with doing musically, but we did them anyway because we trusted him. That's a big, big, big thing to have somebody who hears everything exactly like you're thinking it."
That team spirit goes for the band members, too. Jones put out a solo album last year, Van Cleve will release his in May and Gulley has one coming at the end of the year -- and all of them feature the Mountain Heart lineup in various incarnations.
Naturally, the question arises: With a Nashville producer and Nashville songs, is the band trying to go country?
"It falls where it is," Gulley says. "We've been accepted by gospel markets and jam band markets and different places that we never really tried to get. It still surprises me when somebody picks up a record that wouldn't normally buy a bluegrass record and says, 'That new record is awesome.' We didn't have that in mind when we cut it. But we'll take every one of 'em."
Steffey agrees, saying, "We didn't at any time sit down and say we need to cut this, this and this, because this is our chance to hook these folks. Because, realistically, the bottom line, when it all comes down to it, if someone comes to see us, we just play bluegrass."