Hybrid Bluegrassers Mountain Heart Defies Convention on ‘Soul Searching’ (ALBUM REVIEW)

Mountain Heart bills itself as a hybrid bluegrass group, of which there are several who have released albums in the last few months. What sets Mountain Heart apart is their instrumentation, notably no banjo or fiddle but piano, guitars, mandolin and dobro instead from the core group. Electric guitars find their way into the mix as well.  Also, all four members are contributing songwriters and harmony vocalists. On Soul Searching the band continues to explore their rather unique sound that marries bluegrass, pop, and roots music. The combination of piano with acoustic string instruments is a rather unusual configuration and it sounds just natural and splendid with these players.

This quartet is a veteran unit with members nominated for Grammy’s, ACM, CMA awards. The band has also been nominated for and won multiple IBMA’s. They have appeared on the Grand Ole Opry over 130 times. The core lineup consists of Josh Shilling (piano, guitar), Seth Taylor (guitar), Aaron Ramsey (mandolin, bass) and Jeff Partin (dobro, bass). Schilling, Partin and Ramsey alternate on the lead vocals. Guests Ronnie Bowman, Kenny Malone, Stuart Duncan and Scott Vestal augment on various selections.

These 11 tracks are all about the many forms of searching. There’s the search for self-awareness, the understanding of where one fits in the greater order, and for the common bonds that tie us together. While most of these tunes are gorgeously rendered, especially “Restless Wind” with its weeping dobro, the tempos do vary.  For example, the piano-driven “No Complaints” follows an infectious Bo Diddley beat mixed with some NOLA flavor. “More Than I Am” also carries a pulsing piano rhythm accented by mandolin lines. “Curly Headed Woman” and “You Can’t Hide a Broken Heart” follow a more traditional bluegrass course, powered in part by Scott Vestal’s banjo.

The instrumental “Amicalola Falls” features dobro and mandolin, with a beautiful piano coda. “Your Love Won’t Let Me Go” is a four-part harmony rave-up. “Stars,” imbued with Duncan’s fiddle, is a beautiful ballad sung by Partin. “Festival,” written by Shilling, captures that vibe that merges bluegrass and acoustic jam bands in the outdoor setting. The title track features an impassioned lead vocal surrounded by three-part harmony as Partin’s dobro rings throughout.

More than anything else, Mountain Heart has built their reputation with virtuosic live shows. Soul Searching allows the listener to closely examine their clear, harmonious, unadorned sound. It’s a blend of exploration rooted in tradition. To call them a bluegrass hybrid doesn’t really do them justice. As you listen, several influences seep into the mix but it always stays clear and fresh like a crisply running mountain stream.

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