Josh Shilling of Mountain Heart on Floating Up in an Ocean of Talent

There are few acts in Americana as dynamic and enduring as Mountain Heart. The band has powered through years of lineup changes and seismic shifts in music culture, all the while sprouting sonic branches from their bluegrass roots.

Their latest record, Soul Searching, bears the fruit of that growth. With all band members contributing to its songwriting, it’s the most personal window yet into the talents and voices of guitarist Seth Taylor, mandolin player/bassist Aaron Ramsey, and dobro-player/bassist Jeff Partin.

Then there’s Josh Shilling, whose piano stylings propel the album to some of its most adventurous moments, as on the album’s lead single, “More Than I Am.” In its stirring, cinematic buildups and its message of self-improvement, it’s a track that encapsulates so much of what makes Mountain Heart special: the unbeatable chemistry of four musicians at the top of their game and the vision to build on the musical past while blazing a trail of their own.

Underpinning the piano riffs and dobro licks is the sense of uncertainty that gives Soul Searching its title, as each band member navigates the changes and challenges of life in his own way. Ahead of the band’s upcoming gig at Washington, D.C.’s City Winery, Shilling spoke to the All Scene Eye about the collaborative writing of the album and the real-life transitions that inspired its voyage of self-discovery.

The whole band contributed to songwriting on your latest album, Soul Searching. Was that a different approach for you all?

Yeah, I’m a full-time songwriter, and we’ve got a guy or two in the band that writes, but it seems like the timing has never been right for us to take on a production ourselves completely. When I say that, I mean we did the artwork, we titled the album, we co-produced it, and obviously we’re playing and singing all the parts. Outside of one song that Aaron covered, we wrote everything as well.

Now, writing as a group, we’ve only done that one time. In the room I’m in right now, we got together about a year and a half ago and wrote “Restless Wind.” That’s the first and only time the entire band has said, “hey, let’s just take the day and be creative.” We’ve had a lot of songs placed for what we call our peers, but in the past we didn’t really bear down and say, “let’s make our own Mountain Heart record.” There’s nothing wrong with that at all, but we would always grab songs from other writers. We would reach out to Chris Stapleton or someone like that. This is definitely the most internal songwriting that’s ever happened for an album.

At what stage in the process was that collaborative session for “Restless Wind”?

It was late in the process. It was definitely like, “hey, we’ve got eight or ten songs, but let’s try to beat something or add to it.” So we wrote an introspective song, and it turned out just phenomenal.

For me, going into this, I was like, “hey, I’ve got these four or five songs I absolutely love.” We had maybe half the album in mind, and I was a writer on that half. Then it was like, “well, what are we going to do now?” Another guy that was brought into the picture late was Marcus Hummon. Last summer we wrote the second track, “More Than I Am,” and it was kind of an afterthought, but it was a strong piece of music. The label loved it, we all loved it, and it eventually was the first single.

I could hear “More Than I Am” being the opening number of a musical. It sounds like the hero setting off on this quest of self-improvement. Can you take me back to where that came from?

I think that’s a great description. That song was written with Marcus Hummon, and if people could just google Marcus’ name, he’s been a co-writer on songs like “Bless the Broken Road” for Rascal Flatts, “Only Love” by The Judds, and I think he did “Cowboy Take Me Away” by the Dixie Chicks. On and on and on. So he obviously had his stamp on that, and a really nice uplifting message when I got to the co-write that day. I can’t take credit for all that. [laughs]

He was like, “hey, I’m thinking about this reaching kind of song, you know?” Eventually it even says “I reach, I climb, I leap and rise”–that’s part of the lyric. Trying to be the best you can be was the mentality. Marcus is a phenomenal talent, a profound songwriter that’s had a ton of success, and I think him looking at me at my age, having a new family, he was probably thinking, “this is exactly what this guy is going to need when he gets here.” There’s a lot of heartbroken songs. I’ve written a billion of them and cut a billion of them. But I haven’t written very many trying-to-be-a-better-you songs, so it was just perfect.

The seed was there when I got to the room, and we finished it up quickly. I don’t know if it was lunch time when we were done with it and in love with it. And of course, Mountain Heart is a very musical band first. If I take myself out of the picture, each guy is phenomenal on their instrument. We definitely took this song to another level, but I have recently gone back and listened to the work tape Marcus and I made, and there are little claps, and there are gang vocals in the bridge–Marcus and I put that in there just messing around, and it all ended up on the Mountain Heart album. It was a very simple song to write, and it’s a blast to play because it’s so rhythmic and groovy.

There are so many little things in the instrumental that take it up a notch. There’s the steady piano rhythm, and that rising and falling lead guitar line really gives a sense of the journey.

We’ve been described–and I feel like crawling in a hole when I hear people say this–but we’ve been called the bluegrass Steely Dan. And what they were getting at when they said that was it’s a group of session players that also are part of this Americana bluegrass scene, and that’s the truth. I bet collectively we work on 75 or 100 records a year in some capacity, whether it’s singing a part or overdubbing an organ. Sometimes country records, a lot of bluegrass records, or singer-songwriter records. The musicianship there is just–I’d have to say one of the main reasons the band is still kicking and rolling as hard as it is is because we all know without a doubt, if we quit this, we can’t replace this band. We’ll never  have a platform this good again, no matter what we do. I think everybody feels that, and I think that’s held us together and made us appreciate each other through the years. Hopefully even more so in the future.

Those things you’re describing, they come up and become part of the song almost on the fly. Like the little sixteenth note on my right hand that’s going on in “More Than I Am.” That was literally like, “hey, this is kind of cool, what do y’all think about that?” And it stuck. I’m playing that, my left hand is playing the chords, and Seth immediately just starts playing the rising and falling part you’re talking about. I know he was listening to John Mayer a lot at that point, so there’s some nice little John flair here and there on this record.

Some John Mayer John flair.

Yeah, right. [laughs] All of that stuff is almost first instinct for this band. Sometimes we talk through things, but I kid you not, a lot of times the first thing the guy plays is like, “man, that’s cool. That’s really great.”

If you listen to the outro, I came up with that while we were recording the song. I kept telling the guys, “I really love the way Bruce Hornsby plays. He’ll have a low bass line and then he’ll play a high third or a tenth above that. Maybe we could do something cool like that on the outro.” We tried it, and within five minutes, it was like, “man, this is totally it. Let’s just jam this out, I’ll do some vocal riffs over the top of this, and it’ll be a thing, and then live we can really let it be a thing,” which is the case with Mountain Heart for almost every song. We jam a little too long and too hard sometimes, but we definitely take the outro of that song–and the intro as a matter of fact–when we’re playing on stage and grow it. It’s more dynamic.

I saw the session you guys did with Paste, and after you played “Festival” you mentioned that song was still being worked out on some level. Is there a sense these songs will continue to grow and change as you take them out on the road?

It’s a weird thing. Sometimes I wish we could record a well-polished song that’s had a lot of seat time on stage, where we’ve seen it grow and connect with people and we’ve seen how we can, for lack of a better term, jam it out. It would be great to be able to record that, because the energy would be there and there’s a jam band scene that loves that stuff, these seven or eight-minute versions of songs. At the exact same time, there’s a live listening audience that wants a three-and-a-half-minute song that impacts them quickly. The radio obviously wants that impact, unless it’s “Free Bird,” or–

“Hey Jude,” maybe.

Yeah, or “Stairway to Heaven.” The song’s gotta pretty much be under four minutes long to be on the radio at all. Even streaming. It’s a double-edged scene, perhaps. To answer your question, though, we have absolutely seen these songs grow legs, and that’s always a theme for our records. If you listen to “Festival,” you’ll hear it kind of chills and slowly fades out. There’s a riff played a couple of times, and then it’s over. We did that on purpose. We wanted it to be a four-minute song to hopefully get some airplay, but live, we stretch that out several minutes. Everybody solos.

Speaking of John Mayer, I think I read or saw him say in an interview that he didn’t want to box in productions on his records because he wanted them to be able to do what they want each night. That’s a weird thing, but if you’re in the right kind of band with the right platform, songs can do that. When you think about the Grateful Dead, gosh, they didn’t only grow legs, they put shoes on and ran off.

There’s definitely an element of that in Mountain Heart. I would say half the record is pretty close to the way we tracked it. The other half is pretty open, and we want that. There’s nothing better than being part of the experience right then. “That one time in Chicago in 2007, the band played it this way, and it went on for ten minutes.” That’s the magic in that whole jam band scene, whereas if I went on the road with any country star, let’s say Brad Paisley or whoever, I would be in a black t-shirt in the back of the stage playing the exact riffs he told me to play from his album. We’ve always wanted to be in a band where there are boundaries and parameters, but man, we stretch and show everybody off.

The good thing about this band is a lot of times we do actually audition the songs live for a few months. I know “Soul Searching” was played a lot live before it came out. As a matter of fact, it was recorded and played live by The Infamous Stringdusters. That’s the whole reason I felt like it had to be recorded by the band; we saw the seat time with that one and we saw the reaction, and it was like, “hey, this is our song. We’re a part of this thing, and we love it, so let’s also do it.”

Did their take on it have any influence on the way you wanted it to be when you, as Mountain Heart, took it into the studio?

I can’t say their version of it impacted us at all. As a matter of fact, a couple of guys said, “I don’t want to listen to that version because I’ll end up doing a lot of that.” But what I would say is that there are some special bass lines and interesting chords in that song. It was written with Jeremy Garrett from the band, and the bulk of the stuff that’s on the Stringdusters cut and on the Mountain Heart cut was there on the first little work tape that I put together. I think there are similarities, is what I’m getting at, but I don’t think one band got it from the other. It was like, “man, this is super interesting, let’s do our version of this.” We had a drummer play some parts on there–

I was going to ask, who played those drums?

On that track, a guy named Bryon Larrance. He’s a session player in Nashville, and he’s played with everyone. He’s a friend, and we all play well with him, so he played on a couple tracks. But, you know, it’s got a piano intro. I would say me singing it with my soulful approach, the piano, and then some percussion on there, it’s probably the large difference between the two recordings of the song.

It wasn’t like we saw their success with it or anything like that. We just liked it. Honestly, I think we were playing it live before they recorded it. I kept trying to sell it to the guys, like, “I know it kind of meanders, it’s in 6/8, and it may seem boring to y’all, but there’s a great message in this song, and it hits home with people. I really think we should try this live.” So we did, on and off, for probably a year. It’s working great for the band live; it’s something we do pretty much every night. It was one of two songs I co-wrote on that last Stringdusters album that won a Grammy, so I actually got to be part of that, which is really cool.

What is it like for you to have been a part of that? Not necessarily being the one who made the record, but you kind of made the record, in your own way. 

You know, I can’t take credit for anything. I’m very proud of those guys. They’re all friends. I think they did a heck of a job with that album, and they’ve done an amazing job with their career.

As far as the feeling, first of all, I didn’t know I would get any sort of plaque or certificate because the Grammys are funny. Basically, if you’re not in the band, you don’t get the trophy, you know? [laughs] I just thought I’d be able to post on social media and say, “oh man, a song I was part of is on a Grammy-winning album, this is cool,” but I did get a certificate, and I was able to say, “hey, I did this.” That’s pretty special because I can honestly say Nashville is full of songwriters who are phenomenal, and the bulk of them never get to do anything like that.

For me, being able to just be part of something that actually got acknowledged to that level is amazing. I’ve got the Grammy seal hanging on my wall here, so it’s the first thing you see when you come in my little studio. I’ve had a lot of great talent record songs of mine, and I feel so appreciated when that happens because it’s like, these are ideas plucked from thin air and sung into an iPhone, and they end up on a Grand Ole Opry member’s record or they end up being part of a campaign that wins the frickin’ Grammy. It’s like, “man, I may not get rich off this, but it’s pretty damn cool.” [laughs]

You’re somebody who’s been in this career for a while, and you’ve got a family–congratulations on your second kid, by the way.

Thank you, thank you.

I have to wonder: do these stories of heartbreak and these restless characters still resonate with you? Is that a perspective you still draw from?

Oh, for sure. I feel like love lost, heartbreak, is an emotion everybody has had. That’s one of the easiest things to write about and find hooks for, and I can’t say there’s not some of that on this album. “In the Ground” is a very up, fun-feeling song, but it’s about putting what’s left of two people in the ground. It’s got a heavy message in that department. So does “Your Love Won’t Let Me Go” and “You Can’t Hide a Broken Heart.”

I think I always am going to pull from that place, whatever that place is. I’m always going to be inspired to write a breakup song or a heartbroken song. Hopefully, some more love songs. But what felt like it encompassed the album was the soul searching, the introspective lyrics, and the overall vibe of the record. “Restless Wind,” all of those sussed chords–

That’s a phrase I’ve heard you use before. As somebody with limited music theory knowledge, I have to ask, what do you mean when you say “sussed chords?”

It’s the quality of the chord that sounds uneasy or melancholy. As a person that has limited musical knowledge, you’ll know when you hear a minor scale; it’ll sound dark and eerie. It’s kind of that. I can’t describe this to where it’s going to make any sense in print, but it’s the feeling you get from the music itself. And there’s a lot of what feels uncertain on this record. If you listen to the song “You Can’t Hide a Broken Heart,” listen to the intro. The guitar and the banjo are playing back and forth, and there’s a lot of tension. You can’t tell exactly where that’s coming from, but there’s uncertainty, and there’s this moody musical thread that weaves its way through all 11 tracks.

I think all people are always dealing with life and changes, but we’re definitely in constant transition right now. I just had my second child. Jeff, his wife is pregnant, and one guy just got married. Seth just left his home base and started up his own little deal out here in Nashville all by himself. He’s actually living in a tiny house on a good bit of land just south of town. All of these things cause you to look at yourself and figure out where you need work. “What am I going to be doing in 10 years? In 20 years? How am I ever going to retire? I’m a musician; shouldn’t I have health insurance at this point?” [laughs] There’s just a lot of trying to figure life out in your 20’s and early 30’s, and that’s not necessarily what the record is about, but that track and the title track spoke to us in that way.

On the flip side, you’ve got a track like “No Complaints,” which is about total contentment with where you are.

I feel like records can’t all be super serious or dark. We’ve got guys in the band that love moody and dark, and I’m one of them, but you can’t do but so much of that before you start to really bore or just depress people, you know? There’s got to be a little fun.

The phrase “no complaints” came from a guy who I didn’t meet. I don’t know the whole story, but he was dying of cancer, and whenever anyone asked him how he was doing, the guy was just happy he was alive, and he would respond, “hey, I’ve got no complaints.” So that’s actually where the title was born, which is a much heavier topic than what this song is.

I was with a guy named Ronnie Bowman, who is a phenomenal talent, if anyone wants to look him up. Ronnie was a big part of the Lonesome River Band, and is now in a band called the Band of Ruhks. He’s written songs like “It’s Getting Better All the Time” for Brooks & Dunn and “Nobody to Blame” by Chris Stapleton. Just hanging with him and hearing him sing is awesome, but to bring in this idea and then have us turn it into what essentially is a New Orleans groove–which I had never written before. I’m a piano player, but I’ve never written a second-line drum feel. To do that with this song and that theme and make a party of it was just ridiculous.

“Festival” is another one that’s for fun like that, and “More Than I Am” and “In the Ground,” oddly enough, come off as feel-good, even though the one is about leaving, or heartbreak, or whatever.

I think “In the Ground” works well as an album opener because it’s so focused on putting the past away and moving on from it.

I think that’s right, and I think the energy of that track is a great way to open a record, too. To not have drums, that song has a lot of fire, you know what I mean? That’s literally four people. One of the guys made the comment, “we’ve got videos for ‘Festival’ and ‘More Than I am,’ but everybody keeps forgetting ‘In the Ground.'” And they were like, “I swear, every time I listen to this record, that’s the song I end up running 90 to on I-40.” And I was like, “yeah, you’ve got a point.” So that song wound up the first track for a reason; it’s got so much energy.

“Amicalola Falls” has that jammy instrumental feel, but also very deliberate movements. Is there a contained narrative to that, or is it another one you could open up and sprawl out?

I feel like in order for a song to be jammable, the base of it needs to be a few chord changes. “Amicalola Falls” switches time signatures, it goes from 4/8 to 6/8, it mods keys, it has a bridge section, so in a way, it’s like a story that has to be told a particular way. But within your solo, once you state the melody a little bit, let the listener know that you actually learned the melody [laughs] you can then stretch.

If you go see any band that stretches out and goes to those places, there’s structure. The far stretching where they jam out for 15 minutes is not going to happen on every track. There are obvious songs that work for that, usually two or three per album for the last record or two. What’s awesome about that is if you get five or six songs that stretch out to be nine or 10 minutes long, well, [laughs] then you’re almost done with your set. But, no, I’d say maybe an hour into our set it’ll start to open up in a way that allows guys to really express themselves.

I think for any true musician, you want a little bit of that. I do, at least. I grew up singing soul music, and singing strict harmony is the toughest thing I’ve ever had to do. If I get hired to go play with someone that wants every note I play on the piano or guitar to be a particular way, that’s the toughest thing ever for me because it’s like I don’t get to put myself into the song. If I’m singing a song, if I feel good about something, I’m going to get emotional with it. And that’s what you see in soul singers; they’ll let you know how they’re feeling through their vocals.

You’ve always brought that soul influence to Mountain Heart, but reading interviews with you from after you took over as lead singer, there was the sense that you also had to play to the bluegrass roots behind the Mountain Heart name. Has that changed over the years?

It’s interesting, I’m from the Blue Ridge, where a lot of this music was created. I was around bluegrass my whole life, but I was always drawn to the piano, and like I said, I was most turned on by soul singing: people that just let their hearts come crashing out of their mouth. That was what I wanted most, but early on, the band made a lead singer switch, and I definitely needed to cover what was already there and hopefully not turn off the entire audience. We used the piano less back then, and I sang a little straighter.

Whereas now, on Soul Searching, there’s piano on every track. To be honest, we cut every song but “You Can’t Hide a Broken Heart,” and that was going to be the song we pitched to bluegrass radio. I hate to have some sort of motive behind any production, but that just sounded like it was our bluegrass song. We tried to record it with me just singing it, because I didn’t want to play piano on a traditional bluegrass song; I didn’t want to rub anyone wrong in that department. And no kidding, we tried it three or four times, and the band was like, hating life. Everybody was like, “man, just play a little piano and see what happens.” No joke, I played just the few chords, and then I stopped, and everybody was like, “yes, that’s totally what it misses.” It opens chords up, all the strings ringing when you pull the felt off them. It gives it all these layers and sonically makes the record cohesive from track one to track 11. I had to embrace that and be like, “well, if a super traditional bluegrass fan or music critic doesn’t like it, that’s just that.”

If someone requested, “hey, we want you to come play a gospel set,” we would play a gospel set. If they said, “we want you to play a traditional bluegrass show with no piano,” and the situation was right, we could do that. But in general, I’m not going to hide what I do best. That’s crazy. If you were in my band and you were an incredible kazoo player, I’d be like, “man, get your kazoo out.”

These days in the music business, I feel like the only way to actually float out to the top in the massive ocean of talent is to be different. It might turn off some traditional fans, but what you gain is this entirely different demographic. And to be honest, Bluegrass and acoustic music has gotten so progressive over the last five years, I don’t feel like what we’re doing is offensive at all. These days, it’s like, “how off the wall and original can we be?” And we try to exploit that.


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