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Mountain Heart opts for a Bright sound

By Rick Bell, March 2006

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There may be some skepticism, he says, but so far, people are praising "Wide Open." Though the album debuted in mid-February, he says online blogs were talking about the 12-song collection, which features veteran Nashville songwriters such as Jeffrey Steele, Harley Allen, Mac McAnally and Jim Rushing. Van Cleve contributes an instrumental cut, and Gulley wrote two songs.

"Mark's goal, and the label's goal, is to let the world know about this kind of music," Van Cleve says. "We want people to know about Mountain Heart. We're not under one umbrella; we love all kinds of music. We have the attitude that we want to be as kick-ass as possible."

They've already developed a buzz on the concert circuit - and not just among bluegrass fans. With an energy level uncommon to the bulk of traditional bluegrass bands, Mountain Heart has also stared down country fans - and won.

"We're all wireless," Van Cleve says of the Mountain Heart cast - co-founding members Gulley, Abernathy and Adam Steffey on mandolin, along with Jason Moore on bass and Clay Jones on guitars. "And we're always moving around. We like to get right up in each others' grill, stare each other down and pick away.

"We opened for Brad Paisley and got standing O's; well, we're used to that. But one of the roadies said to us, 'You got called back; that never happens to the opening act.' We got to a country crowd, and a lot of it is our attitude. We're all hungry; we're a hungry bunch of guys, and we give it our all every night."

Attitude, of course, plays into their acceptance on the country as well as bluegrass circuits, but knowing each other for as long as they have also helps.

Gulley, Abernathy and a then-teenage Van Cleve all spent time with Doyle Lawson and Quicksilver. They'd grown restless being bit players in a band and yearned for more.

Along with Steffey and former bassist Johnny Dowdle, they formed Mountain Heart in 1998 and soon recorded two albums for Doobie Shea Records. Dowdle and Steffey left - though Steffey returned in 2002 - but the group had already won several honors, including the IBMA's gospel category for "The Journey."

With Steffey's return and the addition of Moore and Jones, the lineup was set. Skaggs produced their next 2 albums on his label, 2002's "No Other Way" and "Force of Nature" in 2004. The band members had side projects as well, says Van Cleve, but all made the commitment to seeing how far they could take Mountain Heart.

In fact, Van Cleve is putting the finishing touches on his debut solo album, which he hopes to release sometime in late spring on Rural Rhythm Records.

"I'm tickled about it," he says during a break in production. "I'm hesitant to say it's really good, but I like it a lot. A lot of heavy hitters joined me. And I'm making my lead singing debut, for what it's worth."

Yet, despite the solo project, Van Cleve is adamant that Mountain Heart remains his top priority.

"The band comes first for me and for all of us," says Van Cleve, a Nashville resident who also remains a very much in-demand session player. "We put the team in front of ourselves. And, we've been able to keep the band together for this long. In a lot of ways, Mountain Heart is a vehicle to showcase our own talents. Everyone gets a chance to contribute to the mix."

It wasn't so as members of Quicksilver, he says. Though it was an experience he appreciates, Van Cleve felt the need to expand his boundaries.

"I was 19 when I helped start Mountain Heart," he says. "I was coming out of high school and college and was with Doyle. In my time there, I saw a lot of turnover. It was so common. And you don't feel like you're part of a team. You're working for the man. It doesn't keep you excited. I was ready; I was chomping at the bit to move on."

Now in their seventh year, Van Cleve has seen a lot of bluegrass acts come and go. He admitted keeping a steady lineup together isn't easy.

"By the standards of this industry, we're still a relatively new act," he says. "It's hard to keep people together. You face a lot of hardships. It's 4 a.m., and you're standing next to a broken down bus. You're not sure if you're going to get paid. You go through a lot of hard stuff. The wheels turn slowly."

Though they're not spinning off the axle just yet, Van Cleve says the levels of success have steadily increased the past year or so - to the point where a lot of people in the music industry are seeing just what kind of chops Mountain Heart really has.

"There's some pressure, but it's an intangible," Van Cleve says. "It's unspoken, I think. You cut a record like 'Wide Open,' and you have to back it up."

With the album now on the shelves, all the band can do is keep performing. Van Cleve is confident bluegrass radio stations and specialty shows will pick it up. Country radio, however, is another matter.

"I know Mark would prefer they push it to country radio," he says. "Mark encouraged that. The label has a wait-and-see philosophy. If we sold 25,000 copies, it would merit paying for a video and heavier promotion."

Van Cleve says the potential is there. But there seems to be some hesitancy.

"There's the possibility of doing a video," he says. "There's no doubt we need to...There could be more done with this corner of the industry."

"But Mark is a very powerful man in this town. With Sara, Rascal Flatts and Carrie Underwood, he is very connected. He'll go to bat for us."

Van Cleve paused for a moment, collecting his thoughts. "In fact," he says, as if it was almost a revelation, "he already has."

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