Mountain Heart's Bluegrass Shows a Wide Range of Influences on 'Soul Searching'

Photo courtesy of the artist

Mountain Heart is a veteran quartet who rely on their musical wisdom to create a polished yet rustic sound on Soul Searching.

Soul Searching
Mountain Heart


10 August 2018

Critics will quickly label Mountain Heart as a hybrid bluegrass band. That nomenclature, however, significantly misrepresents their wide musical berth and penchant for genre infusion. Their recent album, Soul Searching, is anchored by roots bluegrass that flirts and flits with a multitude of genres spanning across eras. Throughout Soul Searching, Mountain Heart includes robust musical interludes comprised of piano, guitars, mandolin, and dobro in lieu of the traditional banjo and fiddler. Although the latter instruments do make appearances, the core configuration is quintessential of Mountain Heart's approach to music. They are a band who value traditional bluegrass but use their musical acuity to unravel the genre's boundaries.

The opening track "In the Ground" adopts the visceral melancholy that back-porch Americana has always entrusted. The music is jaunty, with a twangy piano twinkling up the scales until the music and vocals both reach an apogee. At this point, it becomes apparent that the instrumental jubilance does not match the heartbroken and macabre lyrics. Josh Schilling (piano, guitar) takes on the role of the emotionally bereaved as he sings, "I wish I could stop the tears from falling/ Drowned by lonesome sound / Drive that last nail in our coffin / And put our love in the ground." The emotional impact is revisited on "Restless Wind", which centralizes the introspective soul-searching the album's title evokes. Likewise, the plaintive title track finds Schilling asking "Who am I to judge? / Who am I to preach? / Sometimes I wonder what I believe." Here Mountain Heart carries the Americana tradition of creating a soundscape where the artist professes their suffering all while the listeners rejoice.

Unlike the emotional introspection that seeks singularity, Mountain Heart is deeply confident in their ability to embrace a multitude of musical influence. The genre range is evident within the album's first moments. "In the Ground" echoes elements of the beloved down-and-out country ballads. "More Than I Am" returns listeners to the pop-folk of the late '60s revival. Seth Taylor's guitar generates an alacrity that touts hints of "Classical Gas" without being a facsimile. It can sound choppy and muddled when lesser band vary genres. But Mountain Heart's ingenuity allows them to dabble across sounds while maintaining a defined fidelity to bluegrass.

Soul Searching is rooted in tradition. The stringent banjo opening for "Curly Headed Woman" hearkens Appalachian murder ballads while the lyrics reiterate a telltale formula of the genre. Appalachian ballads commonly feature the detached singing of dramatic lyrics. The lyrics are indeed tense. After drinking with a woman assumed to be the devil, the narrator turns to see "she had a little ol' short-billed pistol / Pointed right between my eyes." Mountain Heart's vocal delivery is indifferent, never changing timbre, range, or volume. This allows the listener to focus on the narrative without the influence of pathos. However, the track is not an absolute murder ballad: the narrator is spared his life and made to revel in humiliation.

Schilling's virtuosic piano playing hammers and thrums throughout "Curly Headed Woman" and "Restless Wind". Simultaneously, he is paramount to the album's integrity without overshadowing fellow band members. "Your Love Won't Let Me Go" at times sounds improvised as Jeff Partin's dobro and Schilling's piano interchange provides a full view of the musicians' talents. Schilling's piano playing imbues Soul Searching with a distinct R&B energy. "No Complaints" utilizes an R&B rhythm section mixed with folk and rock 'n' roll. Here Mountain Heart recreates a sound and energy reminiscent of The Band. Shilling's vocals are raw yet agrestic but decidedly evocative of Levon Helm's delivery.

Akin to jam bands, Mountain Heart tends to ramble musically. Throughout Soul Searching, Schilling steps away from the microphone and the track becomes an instrumental. In "You Can't Hide a Broken Heart", Aaron Ramsey's mandolin and Scott Vestal's banjo outshine the vocals that are flooded by a monotonous repetition of the word "heart". The instrumental track, "Amicalola Falls" models a dobro, mandolin, and piano trifecta. Ramsey's mandolin ripples and roars as it embodies the naturalistic sound of the North Georgian site. The instrumental creates an appealing sound for both mind and body. Much as jam bands, Soul Searching's focus on long musical interludes becomes a multi-sensory experience.

Thankfully, Mountain Heart avoids the jam band tendency to belabor the music. "Stars", as an example, balances instrumentation and satisfying vocals. Stuart Duncan's fiddle demonstrates strident musical awareness while exhibiting the definite feel of a live performance. Not all instrumental interludes are dynamic, though. "Festival" wanders too far from the standard and is reminiscent of jazz-light.

Mountain Heart is a veteran quartet who rely on their musical wisdom to create a polished yet rustic sound. Soul Searching employs their brand of bluegrass as a means to infuse the genre with wide-reaching influences. In doing, Soul Searching represents a capacity for convention fluidity while offering foot-stomping and head-bobbing tunes.







Zadie Smith's 'Intimations' Essays Pandemic With Erudite Wit and Compassion

Zadie Smith's Intimations is an essay collection of gleaming, wry, and crisp prose that wears its erudition lightly but takes flight on both everyday and lofty matters.


Phil Elverum Sings His Memoir on 'Microphones in 2020'

On his first studio album under the Microphones moniker since 2003, Phil Elverum shows he has been recording the same song since he was a teenager in the mid-1990s. Microphones in 2020 might be his apex as a songwriter.


Washed Out's 'Purple Noon' Supplies Reassurance and Comfort

Washed Out's Purple Noon makes an argument against cynicism simply by existing and sounding as good as it does.


'Eight Gates' Is Jason Molina's Stark, Haunting, Posthumous Artistic Statement

The ten songs on Eight Gates from the late Jason Molina are fascinating, despite – or perhaps because of – their raw, unfinished feel.


Apocalypse '45 Uses Gloriously Restored Footage to Reveal the Ugliest Side of Our Nature

Erik Nelson's gorgeously restored Pacific War color footage in Apocalypse '45 makes a dramatic backdrop for his revealing interviews with veterans who survived the brutality of "a war without mercy".


12 Brilliant Recent Jazz Albums That Shouldn't Be Missed

There is so much wonderful creative music these days that even an apartment-bound critic misses too much of it. Here is jazz from the last 18 months that shouldn't be missed.


Blues Legend Bobby Rush Reinvigorates the Classic "Dust My Broom" (premiere)

Still going strong at 86, blues legend Bobby Rush presents "Dust My Broom" from an upcoming salute to Mississippi blues history, Rawer Than Raw, rendered in his inimitable style.


Folk Rock's the Brevet Give a Glimmer of Hope With "Blue Coast" (premiere)

Dreamy bits of sunshine find their way through the clouds of dreams dashed and lives on the brink of despair on "Blue Coast" from soulful rockers the Brevet.


Michael McArthur's "How to Fall in Love" Isn't a Roadmap (premiere)

In tune with classic 1970s folk, Michael McArthur weaves a spellbinding tale of personal growth and hope for the future with "How to Fall in Love".


Greta Gerwig's Adaptation of Loneliness in Louisa May Alcott's 'Little Women'

Greta Gerwig's film adaptation of Louisa May Alcott's classic novel Little Women strays from the dominating theme of existential loneliness.


The Band's Discontented Third LP, 1970's 'Stage Fright', Represented a World Braving Calamity

Released 50 years ago this month, the Band's Stage Fright remains a marker of cultural unrest not yet remedied.


Natalie Schlabs Starts Living the Lifetime Dream With "That Early Love" (premiere + interview)

Unleashing the power of love with a new single and music video premiere, Natalie Schlabs is hoping to spread the word while letting her striking voice be heard ahead of Don't Look Too Close, the full-length album she will release in October.


Rufus Wainwright Makes a Welcome Return to Pop with 'Unfollow the Rules'

Rufus Wainwright has done Judy Garland, Shakespeare, and opera, so now it's time for Rufus to rediscover Rufus on Unfollow the Rules.


Jazz's Denny Zeitlin and Trio Get Adventurous on 'Live at Mezzrow'

West Coast pianist Denny Zeitlin creates a classic and adventurous live set with his long-standing trio featuring Buster Williams and Matt Wilson on Live at Mezzrow.


The Inescapable Violence in Netflix's I'm No Longer Here (Ya no estoy aqui)

Fernando Frías de la Parra's I'm No Longer Here (Ya no estoy aqui) is part of a growing body of Latin American social realist films that show how creativity can serve a means of survival in tough circumstances.


Arlo McKinley's Confessional Country/Folk Is Superb on 'Die Midwestern'

Country/folk singer-songwriter Arlo McKinley's debut Die Midwestern marries painful honesty with solid melodies and strong arrangements.


Viserra Combine Guitar Heroics and Female Vocals on 'Siren Star'

If you ever thought 2000s hard rock needed more guitar leads and solos, Viserra have you covered with Siren Star.


Ryan Hamilton & The Harlequin Ghosts Honor Their Favorite Songs With "Oh No" (premiere)

Ryan Hamilton's "Oh No" features guest vocals from Kay Hanley of Letters to Cleo, and appears on Nowhere to Go But Everywhere out 18 September.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.