Ever-evolving, always surprising

By Chris Cooper

Mountain Heart released a fantastic album last year with Wide Open, demonstrating a remarkable ability to make modern, crossover friendly bluegrass without sacrificing one bit of musicality and soul.

The CD also introduced new guitarist/vocalist Josh Shilling as a key component of the band’s sound, and now Road That Never Ends just goes to show that a group of musicians — already amazing — can still find ways to evolve and surprise.

It probably helps that many of the members genuinely qualify as local (OK, “regional”) boys, thus ensuring that the bluegrass you’re hearing is about as pure and undiluted as it gets. Just a little younger.

Captured live at The Ark in Ann Arbor, Mich., the album features a version of “Road That Never Ends” that gives the kind of assurance most groups usually settle into after their second set, let alone the first song of the night. Shilling’s voice can summon equal parts grit and twang whenever needed, crooning a tune like “Who’s The Fool Now” smooth and high, then easing some dirty Southern blues into “It Works Both Ways” a few tunes later. Adam Steffey’s mandolin bobs and weaves with fiddler and Canton native Jim Van Cleve from the downbeat of “Heart Like A Roadsign.” Both players display formidable chops on stunning individual breaks and breakneck unison lines with guitarist Clay Jones and banjoist Barry Abernathy.

When the band puts down their instruments for the a cappella workout of “Gospel Train,” you hear six singers so in tune (be it in a harmonic, rhythmic or interpretive sense) that it often resembles telepathy. Not only do they sing the song, they go so far as to emulate the actual chugging and whooshing of the train itself. And though it’s become a bit trite to say a band “sounds like they’re having fun” onstage in regards to a live record, that’s a fairly undeniable quality throughout Road That Never Ends. With track five entitled “Adam Rambles,” you get just shy of a minute of improv silliness from Steffey, and confirmation that no, these guys don’t take themselves too seriously. The music, however, is another story altogether.

Shilling’s daring (this is a bluegrass band, remember) reading of Gregg Allman’s “Whipping Post” is an impressive piece, arranged only for piano and voice, but lacking in nothing. Winding through a greasy blues intro once he hits that classic main riff and first verse, you hear a voice that’s spent as much time projecting in the church choir as it has emulating the rock and soul of Free and Bad Company. The guy even goes George Benson on the audience with an improvised scat/piano solo that’s about as note perfect as it gets. Their inclusion of such a non-traditional version of such, frankly, a non-traditional song indicates that there’s more growth and experimentation on the horizon, which for a band like this is always a good thing.

In keeping with the “music first” theme of the band, they close with Van Cleve’s burning “#6 Barn Dance,” letting every player stretch their fingers over a wonderfully melodic, sometimes cinematic backdrop. Each player develops his ideas carefully, giving the song an inspiring sense of dynamics and lift throughout. The mix is enjoyable as well, with just enough crowd noise thrown in to give an overall sense of space and ambience. But most impressive is really just how damn good this band is, how you get the sense that these guys have made it on their own terms, aware of keeping the music youthful but always respectful of its roots.

(Chris Cooper can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.)

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