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.