Soldiering on: WNC band releases debut

art frWhat a difference a year makes.

For the last 12 months, Haywood County group Soldier’s Heart has been roaming Western North Carolina and beyond with their unique Appalachian porch-n-soul tone. 

From opening for Shonna Tucker & Eye Candy to headlining packed houses at Highland Brewing and Jack of the Wood, the sextet has made large leaps in such a short period of time — a testament to their blue collar, nitty gritty sound that is a cosmic blend of Nashville alt-country, Bakersfield honky-tonk and backwoods Carolina folk.

Fronted by singer/songwriter Caleb Burress, the ensemble includes Joey Fortner (banjo), Zack Edwards (bass), Jeff Mendenhall (fiddle), Chris McElrath (guitar) and Rick Shore (drums). Over this past winter, Soldier’s Heart went into Solomon Mines Studios in Fletcher to record their debut album “Almanac,” which features appearances by Meg Profitt Heathman of The Petticoat Government and Darren Nicholson of Balsam Range. 

The release party for the record will be May 17 at Frog Level Brewing Company in Waynesville.

And with their first year together coming to a close, the end of this chapter is hopefully only the beginning of a long and bountiful melodic journey. When The Smoky Mountain News caught up with Burress and Fortner, they spoke of the whirlwind infancy stage of Soldier’s Heart, why the recording process solidified their intents, and how the camaraderie within the band has set an unbreakable foundation for incredible things to come.

Smoky Mountain News: Soldier’s Heart has been together a year. How has that time together affected you, personally and musically?

Caleb Burress: It has been kind of a blur. I think the thing I’m most proud of is the way in which the friendships within the band have grown. We kind of set out with this idea of “starting a family business,” and I think we’ve stayed true to those initial aspirations.

SMN: What was it like to bring your ideas and sound into a professional studio to see what would stick?

Joey Fortner: It was a little daunting to going into the studio because these recording engineer guys are professionals who hear music day in and day out. I was anxious of what they might think of us, but everything that turned out of the studio sounds amazing.

SMN: What’s your writing process like?

CB: It’s kind of feast or famine. I mean, I’ll go for maybe six to eight months without writing a song and then sit down in the evening and pull one out of the air, or a couple for that matter. I’m at the mercy of the muse, which can be frustrating at times, but it’s how I’ve learned to create. It’s more about hanging on to an emotion and holding it up to the light and inspecting it for a minute or two and doing that in the most engaging way you know how and being honest enough with yourself to be able to say, “This is a bad song” and throw some of them away. I’ve scrapped more songs than I’ve saved, and that element of honesty has to be there — the listener knows when you’re telling the truth.

SMN: What does the title of the album mean?

CB: An almanac is kind of a snapshot of a year in a way. It sort of has that flavor of the past that we try to incorporate into our music. And we’re releasing it 364 days from our debut show, so it’s really come full circle on several levels.

SMN: How has this past year and the recording sessions changed the band?

CB: We all learned better how to communicate with each other, not just verbally, but through the act of playing together. Personally, I’ve learned that a large part of being successful in your endeavors is simply growing accustomed to being tired. I’ve waited my entire life to play in this band, and that’s nearly everyone’s attitude.

SMN: What do you want people to think or feel when they hear the album, and when they leave one of your shows?

JF: I truthfully want people to enjoy hearing it as much as we enjoy being a part of making it. When they listen to the album, I want them to know that what they are hearing are just six guys that love these songs and each other, and have become a family because of this music. We want the audience to become a part of that family, too, all over some good songs and good times.

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