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Mountain Heart delivers a force of nature

By David McPherson, July 2004

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"Why not just say there are two types of music: good and bad," he says. "I listen to everything. I never like to put labels on anything."

But, despite these varied influences, bluegrass is still the genre where Gulley feels most at home.

"I'm playing the music now that I really love," he reveals. "Our band is that way, so it has taken on that persona because everybody's personalities have tended to come out in what we do, and I'm proudest of that because you can't cut a complete record with six people just listening to two of us telling them what to do. We don't really look at it as traditional or contemporary. We just make music we love."

"We all have had our share of doing things that we didn't really like to make a living and to get to do music the way we want to do it is a real blessing."

Mountain Heart released its first two albums on Doobie Shea, a Virginia-based bluegrass label.

The group won the International Bluegrass Music Association's Emerging Artist of the Year award in 1999.

The group then found a welcoming home for their music on Ricky Skaggs' owned Skaggs Family Records. Skaggs approached them about recording for his label.

This is the bands' second release for Skaggs and the creative freedom this independent encourages has helped the band in its quest to make the music they love - adding another member to the Mountain Heart family.

"We have been pretty fortunate so far to get to cut the kind of records we want to cut," Gulley says. "It would have been very easy for Ricky to say 'I have sold this many million records, and you are going to do things my way'. He has never done that. He always has just said 'okay guys what have we got, let's see how we can sit down and make this better.'"

"He's just like having another band member with really good ears sitting on the other side of the console because he loves what we do," he adds.

Having a loving environment, sharing the same spirituality, and adhering to the same family-centric values are at the heart of Mountain Heart's success to date.

"I wouldn't be ashamed to bring the pastor of my church on the bus with our guys because they are clean living people," Gulley says. "We live by the old motto 'If you're wired, you're fired.'"

"We take our music seriously," he continues. "If the guys do something on their own time that's one thing, but with us, if you show up you better be straight and know your gig because there are so many horror stories in our business of people expiring way too soon - that's the only way to say it. If you are clear headed, the music comes to you a lot quicker."

Being best friends also helps feed the musicians' collective muse.

"We don't shake hands on the bus," explains Gulley. "We hug necks and say let's go brother and go play one."

Mountain Heart couldn't have formed at a better time with the recent rise in the popularity of bluegrass music, outside the traditional mountain regions.

"I'm so proud to see the shift in the demographic of the people that come to our shows," says Gulley. "In marketing terms, they would be talking about demographics, target people and age groups and stuff, we don't like it that way because we are just pickers. But when you see professional people who are well educated that can buy a ticket, buy a CD, and would normally spend their money in another genre of music, coming to bluegrass shows, concerts, festivals, buying banjos, mandolins, fiddles and wanting to learn to play - that goes for kids in high school all the way up to lawyers and CPAs ... they are starting to get into the music more than ever."

Movies such as "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" and "Cold Mountain" with their high country soundtracks have helped bring this traditional music to a new audience, but Gulley sees it as a broader musical movement of people searching for something purer and more heartfelt.

"I know 'O Brother' helped, and I'll give it credit where credit is due, but I have to say that before it ever came out I saw a swing," he says. "I think that people were just ready for a pure art form or a pure form of music than what they could hear on the radio and that lends itself well to what we do. I say that for everybody in bluegrass."

Mountain Heart has shared the stage recently with contemporary bluegrass heavyweights such as Skaggs and Del McCoury.

Gulley recalls a show a few months ago at the Chicago Theater where they filmed most of the movie Chicago, which illustrates this shift in the genre's popularity.

"That was one of the last places in the world you would think to see a bluegrass show," says Gulley. "But, there we were, right in the middle of Chicago, right down under where the trains go by, playing bluegrass in one of the most beautiful venues in the world. I think a few years ago, you would have never seen that happen."

Mountain Heart hopes that their popularity will continue.

"If we can keep this going and keep everybody's heads on straight, then the band will continue to flourish because we do treat people not as fans, but as friends wherever we go," he continues. "I think that that goes a long way in terms of longevity in the music business because there have been so many people that have been so hard to get around you never want to go see them again. With us, we are just approachable every day people who really love to play and sing."

If record sales are any indication, Mountain Heart is definitely on the right musical track.

"'No Other Way' took five weeks to sell what this record sold in two weeks," reveals Gulley. "If we can continue to do that then we can get our numbers up and maybe salvage a career out of it and not have to go back and get real jobs."

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