november 2010 header

mountain heart
The most versatile, and most unclassifiable, Mountain Heart yet: (from left) Aaron Ramsey, Barry Abernathy, Josh Shilling, Clay Jones (no longer in the band, replaced by Jake Stargel, not pictured), Jason Moore, Jim VanCleve

Roaming Freely Across The Roots Landscape
By David McGee

that just happenedTHAT JUST HAPPENED
Mountain Heart
MH Music Group

Changing personnel is nothing new for bluegrass bands, but Mountain Heart has really upset the apple cart this time. Only the exemplary fiddler Jim Van Cleve and inventive banjo man Barry Abernathy remain from the original lineup that made an immediate impact with its adventurous 1999 Ricky Skaggs-produced debut, No Other Way. But in Jason Moore (bass), Aaron Ramsey (multiple stringed instruments—mandolin, dobro, National Steel), whippersnapper Jake Stargel (guitar) and especially powerful vocalist and keyboardist Josh Shilling, who delivered a tour de force vocal triumph in his recorded debut with MH on the band’s rousing 2007 live album, Road That Never Ends, the latest incarnation is the most versatile yet, and the most unclassifiable, if the seven tunes on this EP are any indication.

In true Mountain Heart tradition, the music roams freely across a roots landscape that gives the individual players plenty of opportunity to display their instrumental mastery but the focus is on songs with meaningful stories—when you have a vocalist as strong and emotive as Shilling, you don’t keep him under wraps. Two songs in particular demonstrate what he can really do, and how well he does it. Those who think of Mountain Heart as a bluegrass band might want to rethink that deal when they hear the stunning country heartbreaker, “Even If It Breaks My Heart,” a tale of aching loss and longing, sung by a fellow who’s given up his gal because their union is holding her back from reaching her full potential: “If letting go helps you discover just how beautiful you are/and brings you all the good that you deserve/I’m glad I played a part/even if it breaks my heart.” The song rises to explosive outbursts of emotion keyed by Van Cleve’s crying fiddle, and returns to a soft, tender (and utterly poignant) chorus underpinned by Shilling’s own mournful piano and Ramsey’s gentle mandolin shadowing him—hope and despair intermingling in a moment of eloquent poignancy reflected as much in mood as in the devastation of Shilling’s vocal. On the other hand, the persistent, gnawing ache of lost love, minus the selflessness expressed in “Even If It Breaks My Heart,” animates Shilling’s aggressive, even frantic attack on his own “Same Old Heartache,” as his vocal disappears into a tumult of hard-strummed guitar, cascading dobro lines, flailing mandolin and anxiety-ridden fiddling, all designed to magnify the singer’s desperation when he cries “Is there hope for me tomorrow/or will I drown from this sorrow?” Whereas one song demands the singer reign in his emotions but cut loose in nuanced outbursts, another is an exercise in unguarded, wounded declaiming, and Shilling is completely convincing in both roles. Conversely, a love affair that has gone sour and become toxic—“there’s too much wrong to ever make it right”—is fuel for a forthright, hard driving declaration of independence in the bluegrass-centered “Just Get Up and Go,” a Shilling-Jon Weisberger co-write that burns mightily on energy created from the searing ensemble mix of fiddle, mandolin and guitar, most prominently, behind Shilling’s sturdy, no-nonsense statements.

Mountain Heart, ‘Whipping Post’ live, December 16, 2009. Josh Shilling lead vocal.

Want traditional? Check out the venerable “Little Sadie,” featuring a 40-second mandolin and fiddle dialogue worth of the Punch Brothers before the rest of the band enters strutting, and Aaron Ramsey divests himself of a warm, engaging lead vocal punctuated by the sprightly dialogues between his own mandolin and banjo, Van Cleve’s textured bowing and Stargel’s fleet guitar runs. And for that guy who seemed to roam all over America following the Allman Brothers and yelling out “Whipping Post!” at every concert, Mountain Heart’s got one for you in its own version of the tune, which mates a bluegrass sensibility to southern rock, with Shilling rolling out a bluesy vocal and adding ballast to the arrangement via his gospelized organ and jazzy piano; but in this 7:48 version Van Cleve gets equal time to improvise wildly on the melody in frenetic soloing that recalls some of the out-there, jazz-based ideas Richard Greene explored in his Seatrain days, ahead of the musical mayhem coalescing around Shilling’s final blues shout of a chorus. At which point all you can really say is, “Wow!” and catch your breath. Welcome to the new Mountain Heart, not like the old Mountain Heart, but hardly unrecognizable either. Seeds planted upon Josh Shilling’s arrival have yielded a bountiful crop.

Mountain Heart’s That Just Happened is available at the band’s website,

Founder/Publisher/Editor: David McGee
Contributing Editors: Billy Altman, Laura Fissinger, Christopher Hill, Derk Richardson
Logo Design: John Mendelsohn (
Website Design: Kieran McGee (
Staff Photographers: Audrey Harrod (Louisville, KY;, Alicia Zappier (New York)
Mailing Address: David McGee, 201 W. 85 St.—5B, New York, NY 10024