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Mountain Heart zooms ahead on the fast track

By George Hauenstein, November 1999

Mountain Heart is on the fast track even though the bluegrass band has been together for only about a year. This Georgia-based group already has a self-titled debut CD on Doobie Shea doing well on the national bluegrass charts and a touring schedule that would be the envy of many more established bluegrass outfits.

To top it off, the band received the International Bluegrass Music Association's emerging band of the year award in October.

Steve Gulley, lead singer/guitarist and co-founder, says, "To get nominated for awards, to have a CD do so well, to have a bus is fun and amazing. All of us (have) been real fortunate."

Mountain Heart was formed last year by Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver veterans Barry Abernathy on banjo and Gulley. The band also includes Jimmy VanCleve on fiddle (another Quicksilver alum, who also was in the very short lived Rambler's Choice), Alan Perdue on mandolin and Johnny Dowdle on bass. Adam Steffey (ex-of Alison Krauss and Union Station) was an original member, but bowed out early because of the band's heavy touring schedule.

The decision to put Mountain Heart together was, as Gulley put it, "really a mutual thing between my partner, Barry Abernathy and myself...I'm an old guy. I'm 37 and had always wanted to do something I could put my stamp on musically. I left (Lawson) in '96 to do solo recording. I was working on some solo stuff in Nashville and at Renfro Valley, Ky. making good money, going back and forth playing country."

Gulley has a solo country album in the can, though not yet released.

"We got to talking about it, says Gulley, adding, "(Barry) was ready for a change...We love Doyle Lawson, but we have our own taste and style...we wanted to expand, and we missed each other musically and as friends. We'd always heard the same type thing musically."

"We click musically and as friends," he says.

The band took shape last year, but performances did not start until this year January with Perdue coming on board in March.

Gulley exudes excitement when he talks about his fellow band members. 'Jimmy VanCleve is almost like a prodigy. (He was) smokin' a lot of fiddle players by time he was a kid. Johnny Dowdle is smooth...we said, 'that's the guy we want for our bass man. Alan and Johnny were friends and jammin' partners with Jimmy."

As for Perdue, Gulley says, "People said 'if you could just get this guy to travel...he's the next big mandolin player.' We asked Alan to join the band. He said, "man, I'd love to.' He kind of gelled the band."

The name for the band came from Gulley himself. "We were looking for something special. It's what we're about...a bunch of mountain guys. Lots of country is more fluff than substance, and we wanted to make the music that we feel."

While he likes country, Gulley says, "(We're) strictly a bluegrass band 'cause that's what we love, but we add our own flavor of country-flavored bluegrass. It's really heartfelt music."

He says bluegrass allows musicians to be traditional and contemporary. "If you believe what you feel as a musician or as a creative person...you never go against your intuition...that's what makes you different...that's the approach we took."

The band's influences include many of the legends from both the country and bluegrass worlds.

Gulley says he is a 'big Jones and Haggard fan. "But at the same time I grew up listening to Lester and Earl."

He credits the Osborne, Stanley and Louvin Brothers as other prime influences. "Ira (Louvin) is the best songwriter ever!"

One of Gulley's biggest influences was J.D. Crowe's legendary New South band of the mid-1970's with Tony Rice, Ricky Skaggs and Jerry Douglas.

"I was 17 and remember hearing JD Crowe & New South on the 'Old Home Place' album, and it just clicked. He always had a country flavor."

Since three of the members of Mountain Heart spent time in Doyle Lawson's Quicksilver band, obviously Lawson ranks high among the band's influences. Gulley is quick to give Lawson lots of credit for helping him develop as a musician and form his own band.

"He showed me the respect to show that I could do it. I'd been doing it for a long time so I was already established. (With) any young musician, he'll make you a better musician. He pushes you without doing it in your face. He's been supportive and even booked us on his festival. He's a good friend. He helped cultivate our own ideas."

Mountain Heart started recording last year with Steffey before Perdue replaced him. Dobroist Rob Ickes appears on many songs.

Gulley and the band had a plan when selecting material for their album. They wanted songs that they could make their own, both in the recording studio and in concert, as opposed to relying solely on the old bluegrass 'war-horses' that have been done to death.

"You can only do covers so many times," he adds. "We want to do something that was fresh sounding, so we worked on picking the right material that gelled with this group of musicians."

To that end, Gulley says they "called in favors from a few country songwriters Carl Jackson, and Larry Cordle gave us 'Bitter Harvest,' which I actually recorded on my country project."

Vince Gill's "Midnight Train" is a fan favorite.

The band also chose songs from up-and-coming bluegrass writers Greg Luck, Keith Tew, Tim Stafford and Gulley, who co-wrote "Roses" and the final song, "Patching It Up."

Gulley says the band "needs to be able to cut good records and reproduce them live to be successful...you can cut great records, but I like the live feel on the recordings...I want to be able to keep arrangements fresh, but still be able to pull them off (on stage)."

Gulley says that the band is "able to reproduce his parts on mandolin and fiddle so it doesn't take away from feel of the song."

Gulley is bullish about the future of bluegrass and Mountain Heart's place there. "There's lots of new life in bluegrass. Country music is in its downfall...you can't turn on radio and listen to traditional music any more."

"That has made an even bigger marketplace for bluegrass. Bluegrass has becoming an alternative music form, rather than country music's poor stepchild. Anybody looking for something else to listen to, will find this as pure a music as there is.

Despite a seemingly crowded marketplace with more new bluegrass bands than ever, Gulley is confident Mountain Heart will stand out. "We made the cover of Bluegrass Now (magazine) without a record. The bluegrass community has welcomed us with open arms. A lot of that is due to people knowing us from our past work. This band is different. We don't sound like anybody...We don't pattern ourselves after everybody."

"We've had no problem finding our identity with this band. We just let it happen...let the music go...You can 't fool bluegrass people."