Mountain Heart opts for a Bright sound

Rick Bell, March 2006

Stepping from bluegrass into country music should take about as much effort as crossing the Tennessee state line into Kentucky.

But like the neighboring states, bluegrass and country remain stubbornly independent of each other, maintaining distinctive personalities despite morphing in plenty of other directions.

Country music has ventured into straight-ahead pop. The country rock movement of the late 1960s and early '70s still lingers. Southern rock has returned to its country roots. There's alt.-country and progressive country and the big sound of arena country.

Similarly, name the shade, and bluegrass has likely colored it, from psychograss to jazzgrass to spacegrass.

Yet countrygrass, or if you prefer, bluecountry, for whatever reason, has never seemed to take root. There are exceptions, of course such as Alison Krauss, Patty Loveless and Vince Gill, who have managed to bridge the two with a measure of commercial success.

But the chilly waters still separating two genres may be warming just a bit with the latest release by Mountain Heart, "Open Space."

The bluegrass group has steadily grown a legion of fans during its seven-year, five-album run. Yet, one Mountain Heart fan in particular could very well help the group find a home on the country charts, while remaining a staple of bluegrass.

Country music producer Mark Bright, who helped shape Rascal Flatts' distinctive high-harmony, acoustic-based sound, signed on last year to produce "Open Space."

Bright also produced country superstar Sara Evans' 2005 release "Real Fine Place," helping keep her atop the charts as well as "American Idol" winner Carrie Underwood's country music smash debut, "Some Hearts."

So what's a Nashville über-producer and industry power broker doing producing a bluegrass group that admittedly has had a difficult time mustering sales of 10,000 units for any of its albums?

After all, there's no guarantee Mountain Heart can spin gold on Ricky Skaggs' small, independent Skaggs Family Records label merely because Bright is producing it.

Simply put, Bright is among Mountain Heart's biggest fans. It came as a big surprise to Jim Van Cleve, Mountain Heart's co-founder and fiddle player.

"The average listener won't care who Mark Bright is," says Van Cleve, who along with guitarist-singer-songwriter Steve Gulley and banjoist Barry Abernathy helped found Mountain Heart when he was barely 20 years old.

"And it was a simple twist of fate that we got him to produce our record."

Van Cleve says he was across the street from Evans, who was doing some demo records with Bright for "Real Fine Place." Evans' manager knew of Mountain Heart and urged Van Cleve to meet Bright.

"Mark is a big bluegrass fan, so I walked over there," Van Cleve recalls. "I introduced myself, and he said, 'I know exactly who you are! You're Mountain Heart!' My jaw about hit the floor. I was holding a copy of (Mountain Heart's album) 'Force of Nature' and gave it to him when he said, 'I already have one; I bought it."

"So Sara is doing a demo song, and Mark is reading our liner notes. I'm standing in the studio watching this, and I can't believe it."

Van Cleve says the band had toyed with the idea of getting someone such as Krauss to produce their next record, but it never materialized. So he seized the opportunity that presented itself.

"I asked him if he would be interested in producing us; I thought he would say maybe somewhere down the road we could work together," Van Cleve says. "Then Mark said, 'I would literally jump at the chance to work with you.' I couldn't leave that alone. I called my manager - 'Let me tell you what just happened,' I said. And we were off."

Bright told him, "Here's how we'll start," and it grew from there. Mountain Heart members received a CD a week from Bright, all containing potential material for the new album.

"They were all good songs," Van Cleve says. "It was all killer material. We could've cut two or three records. But through the process, we narrowed it down. We were taking songs that were top demos."

Not only that, they worked in Nashville's best studios with the brightest technical people in town, Van Cleve says.

"The engineers (Derek Bason and David Hall) are the best in Nashville; these guys are at the top of their game," he says. "You have to understand, bluegrass bands don't get that kind of chance. The material, our own growth as a band, us understanding we're in the best studios in the world - the combination is definitely produced our strongest album yet."

Van Cleve admits there could be a backlash, that some in bluegrass won't see it as a bluegrass album, and some in country won't see it as a country album.

"I'm concerned about mixed reviews," he says. "We're not wearing two hats - one bluegrass and one country. We're wearing one hat that encompasses both; plus, we're a jam band."

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."

© Country Standard Time • Jeffrey B. Remz, editor & publisher •