Since 1998, Mountain Heart has been a shining light on the contemporary bluegrass scene — winning all manner of industry awards and playing to packed houses almost everywhere they go. Mainstays on the festival and theatre circuits, it’s rare one gets a chance to see such a superstar acoustic group in a small and intimate setting — yet that’s exactly where the group can be found this weekend. They’ll return for a two-night stand at famed local luthier Randy Wood’s 100-seat concert hall in Bloomingdale.
This cozy, informal listening room is a far cry from the stage of the Grand Ole Opry (where the band has appeared over 70 times), but their current lineup of guitarist Steve Gulley, banjoist Barry Abernathy, fiddler Jim VanCleve, bassist Jason Moore, guitarist Clay Jones and former Alison Krauss mandolinist Adam Steffey can be expected to turn in the same caliber of show here as they would there, or on any one of their opening slots for such country music giants as George Jones, Merle Haggard, Ricky Skaggs (their record producer), Brad Paisley or LeAnn Rimes
We caught up with Jones and VanCleve the morning after a gig for a brief chat:
Connect Savannah: What’s the most important difference between Mountain Heart and other groups you’ve played in?
Jim Van Cleve: One word — energy! Our show can feel explosive at times, but even when we’re doing a slow ballad there’s an obvious energy with this band and the crowds definitely feed off of that.
Connect Savannah: Are you surprised at the level of success that this group has achieved?
Clay Jones: We don’t judge success by “a level.” We just want to play music and take care of our families. Sometimes I’m shocked by the crowd response, and I feel like I’m the luckiest man in the world to be playing with this group of guys. Success to me is being able to appeal to a crowd of listeners who were previously unfamiliar with our music — such as fans of Travis Tritt or Montgomery Gentry. We filled in (on their tours) for Lynyrd Skynyrd, and to me, that says a lot. When’s the last time you heard of a bluegrass band filling in for Skynyrd? It’s like saying, “that banjo player has a Ferrari!” (laughs)
Connect Savannah: Did winning the Emerging Bluegrass Artist Award in 1999 make it very hard to live up to your own hype?
Jim VanCleve: I don’t know that it did. We felt we were pushing boundaries, and that we weren’t creating your run of the mill stereotypical music, so it was really nice to be recognized by all of our peers so early on. We didn’t even have a record out yet, so it was even more flattering.
Connect Savannah: What is it about being in Mountain Heart that most excites you?
Jim VanCleve: The musical fearlessness of all of the guys in the band. No one is afraid to take chances. We always have to be on our toes and ready for everything. The creative energy on stage between us all makes this more fun than any other musical situation I’ve ever been a part of.
Connect Savannah: Is this a group whose members have a lot in common outside of music, or one that works well on shared goals, but rarely hangs out together?
Clay Jones: Let me put it to you this way: . We can go fishing together. We all have different personalities, but we would hang out if we never played a note of music. We talked about that last night. If I couldn’t play anymore? We’d all still be friends.
Connect Savannah: You’ve played Randy’s before. What makes that little room a desirable place to play? Is it the mood of the crowd, the sound on the stage, or the vibe?
Jim VanCleve: It’s a combination of all of the things you mentioned plus the kickass BBQ next door! Randy and all of his crew are some really good friends of ours and they really know their music. It’s a real comfortable and laid back atmosphere there, which makes us more outgoing when we hit the stage. çn
Mountain Heart plays Randy Wood’s Concert Hall (1304 E. Hwy 80, Bloomingdale) Friday and Saturday nights at 8 pm. To reserve $30 Advance tickets for these ALL-AGES shows, call 748-1930.