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Mountain Heart delivers a force of nature

By David McPherson, July 2004

Playing on stage since he was five, Steve Gulley hopes that he never has to get a "real job."

With a new album receiving rave reviews and a growing legion of fans, the 41-year-old lead singer and rhythm guitar player for bluegrass group Mountain Heart could be on track to achieve this goal.

Gulley, banjo player Barry Abernathy and fiddler Jim Van Cleve formed the 6-piece band in 1998. Before Mountain Heart, the three spent time together in Quicksilver - the longtime band led by celebrated bluegrass showman Doyle Lawson.

"Force of Nature" - the bands' fourth album and best yet - hit stores in early May, two years after "No Other Way."

A lot has changed.

The band's sound continues to evolve and the group gained a new member, lead guitarist Clay Jones. "From the last album to this one, we have tried to figure out who we are as a band," Gulley says. "I think that this band is a much better band than we were last time out. Clay has had a big part to do with it, but we have also evolved."

"That's the one thing you will notice on this record first and foremost - the intensity level goes up every time Clay is involved."

Jones is a flat picker, and as Gulley says, "he can absolutely rip a guitar."

The guitar wizards' influence is heard right from the solo on the opening track of "Force of Nature," "Heart Like a Road Sign, Head Like a Wheel."

The band also includes Adam Steffey, who had been with Alison Krauss' Union Station and joined, left and rejoined Mountain Heart, on mandolin and Jason Moore on bass. Moore previously did a stint with James King.

"Force of Nature" is a bluegrass tour de force that showcases four-part harmony by a tight, highly energetic ensemble.

"Any time you travel 175-80 days a year with a bunch of guys you get to know them pretty well," says Gulley. "We have been able to do that, and we are really tight. It's a lot different going up on stage with a bunch of guys you truly love as brothers. You look across the stage and see a guy smile at you, and you say 'let's go get 'em.' It's a lot different doing that than playing with somebody and you say, 'I'm just drawing a check.' We have never seen it that way."

So what philosophy has the band adhered to in order to keep their egos in check and ensure the six members are all on the same page both musically and mentally?

"We have always had the mentality that no one person is bigger than the group," says Gulley. "Going into this, we wanted a true band environment, and I think that is the reason we have been successful."

Mountain Heart is just gearing up for the summer festival season.

"If you have ever seen us play live, one of the things that we hang our hat on is that we are not boring," Gulley says. "We don't stand in a straight line playing into microphones and looking like we can bite a nail in two like a lot of people in bluegrass do."

When Gulley gets a rare breather from the group's hectic touring schedule, he enjoys relaxing and retreating to the peace of his home in the northern Tennessee woods of Cumberland Gap.

"It's a pretty place, well preserved and pretty untouched," he says. "I live way back by myself in the woods with a stream where I used to go fishing. I'm a country dude, a mountain dude. It's really conducive to writing and things I enjoy doing, so it's a really good setup."

Gulley grew up in this region, but spent his formative years honing his music in Renfro Valley, Ky. - the backwoods area just off I-75. "I started there as a teenager and left when I was 31," he says.

For Gulley, music runs in the family. His father is one of his singing heroes. The senior Gulley started a traditional country group called the Pinnacle Boys that toured the nation back in the early to mid 1970s.

"My dad is a great musician," Gulley says. "He still sings at Renfro Valley. He is about 65, but looks about 55, and he is a great singer."

"My dad was a well-respected DJ for about 40 years as program director at a radio station," he continues. "I grew up in a control room next to him while he was on the air listening to records of all my heroes and never was I told that I had to play."

Whether or not Gulley's father had pushed music on him, he's sure that it would have found him one way or another since playing music is almost a prerequisite to living in the Appalachian Mountains.

"In this kind of environment, it's (music) part of our culture," he says. "A lot of places you can go out back of a barn and find a fullback or a point guard. Here you can find a banjo player or a guitar player. Just pull up a rock, and find them running out from under you. It's really a great place to grow up and a really great place for the kind of music I love."

The music Gulley loves is an eclectic mix, from the finger style folk of James Taylor to the rhythm and blues of the late Stevie Ray Vaughan. And, recently he has been "groovin'" to Eric Clapton's latest disc - Me and Mr. Johnson.

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