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Mountain Heart quintet will have it no other way

By John Lupton, October 2002

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After releasing their debut, self-titled disc, their follow-up "The Journey" (both on Virginia-based Doobie Shea Records) was an all-gospel release. "No Other Way" mixes the spiritual with the hard-chargin', straight-ahead 'grass, but Gulley again speaks for all five in saying that their spiritual side is an integral part of who they are.

"I was raised up in the Missionary Baptist Church my granddad built in the '40s in the mountains of east Tennessee where I'm from," he says. "I'm from Cumberland Gap. That goes back to my faith. I've been a Christian all of my life, basically, and raised up in church. Gospel music and spiritual music kind of run into one another, in the way that I approach it, and the way Barry (Abernathy) approaches it because we were raised up in similar backgrounds."

"By that, I mean that if it hits me in the heart, and it hits me the way it's supposed to, of course, that's a spiritual connection, and to me, gospel music, it ministers to people as well in the lyrics. But to me, the words and the feeling have to both be there, if that makes sense. The combination of the two makes good gospel music to me, because I have to feel something, both musically and spiritually, and I think we do, as a band."

Though grateful for the opportunities to work with Tim Austin and his Doobie Shea family, when Ricky Skaggs approached the band about recording on his Skaggs Family label, Gulley says it was "the best possible situation for us...for us, he was absolutely the best in the studio as a producer. I've known Ricky for about 20 years, casually, and he talked to me a couple of times about maybe coming and working for him in different configurations, when he played country and then again in bluegrass. He's been a big, big hero of mine for many years, musically, but I wasn't awestruck by Ricky because he's a friend, and when we were in the studio it was not a situation of 'you're gonna do this, because I've sold millions of records and I know more than you do', that kind of finger-pointing. It was, 'I like it, what do you all think?'...'How do you want to do this?' He was real accommodating in the studio, and he was there through every minute of the recording, and he devoted his time and his energy, and his mind, and his great set of ears to the record. He's done everything he said he would and more when Barry and I signed the contract for the band with the label."

"No Other Way" features strong connections to another of the "A" bands to surface in recent years, Blue Highway. The two opening cuts, Shawn Lane's "Mountain Man" and Tim Stafford's "Ramblin' Heart" reflect the enormous respect they have for a band they regard as peers, colleagues and most importantly, friends. Topping it off, Blue Highway dobro wizard Rob Ickes sits in on three tracks. Gulley is enthusiastic and emphatic in praise of their collective talents.

"We love their writing. When they send us a song, it always ends up being 'us', rather than 'Blue Highway', because that's the way we arrange, according to our personnel. Their songwriting, to me, is second to none...they can write in an older vein, they can look past their youth and write really old-sounding songs, and we look for things like that. But we're always looking for a good lyric, and something we can work with as a band, and they've been great to us."

Not surprisingly, Gulley is thrilled with the wave of interest in bluegrass and traditional country music in the wake of "O Brother," and looks forward to a new era for the music.

"I think one thing great that's happened for bluegrass is that they haven't had to sell out to get the publicity because people are looking for pure music, in my idea and in my mind because country radio is just absolutely not country anymore to me. This is from a guy who grew up playing just as much Haggard and Jones as Monroe and Stanley. So, my big deal is to keep capitalizing on the fact that it is pure music and that we can carry on from this point on as we've done and not really have to change for anybody, but look maybe on a wider scope and say we do have a bigger slice of the pie now, and we've got a little more leverage with radio and television and media and some of the markets that we've never been in."

While such sentiments might brand Steve Gulley, like his Mountain Heart bandmates, as being by nature the optimistic sort prone to donning rose-colored eyewear, he cites plenty of evidence to back up what he says.

"Friends of mine who own music stores and give lessons and that kind of thing say you wouldn't believe the numbers of doctors, lawyers and professional people...who are coming in buying mandolins, banjos, fiddles and Martins and trying to learn to play. I think that's great for the music, and I think that that will carry on because I don't think it's a flash in the pan. I really don't because I've just seen the overwhelming success at the venues we've played. I think the future's bright, and everybody just needs to approach it as being the purest of pure music and always be mindful of that and try to take it to the masses."

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