Mountain Heart

by Shawna Ortega

For bluegrass band Mountain Heart, card-carrying members of a music genre dominated by instrumentation - namely dobros, fiddles, banjos, mandolins, string bass, and guitars - vocals have not commonly been a much-heralded point. Until now.

Striding into his Opry debut wielding a mighty Crayola vocal palette, Josh brought to Mountain Heart a veritable banquet of vocal color. His influence on a band whose members already held housefuls of awards between them has been immediate and powerful. The 28-year-old phenom from Virginia has been schooling himself in jazz, country, rock, funk, soul, and just about any other label one can throw out there, since the age of 7.

Now, on their second release since Josh's inception, the songs on Mountain Heart's newest EP, That Just Happened, were selected by their fans - literally. And on the day after the bachelor party for one of the band's members, Josh explains how and why.

Shawna Hansen Ortega (Songfacts): I'm going to start with your recent album, That Just Happened. How did that just happen?

Joshua Shilling: In Nashville I do a lot of co-writing for more commercial country artists. So that song was right up my alley as far as what I'm doing on a daily basis. But the way that came about was our fiddle player, Jim Van Cleve, he's really into the old Nickel Creek records and Chris Thile and people like that. And he had the musical hook in mind. I think he originally wanted it to be an instrumental, so he was looking for this call-and-answer instrumental melody type of thing. And it really sounded more like a country song to me. And I remember asking him, "Have you thought about putting lyrics to it?" And he's like, "No, I think it might just be an instrumental for now." And I said, "Dude, this thing sounds like an AC/DC type of song. It sounds like an anthem, almost rock kind of vibe to me."

So we got together and later that night - I think we were on the bus coming back from Kentucky - I was like, "Let's get together and see if we can come up with something lyric-wise for this thing," because that feels way more correct for what he was working on there. So we got together, I guess it was the next Monday or Tuesday after the show, and just kind of started putting some ideas together.

And the way that the title came about was we were just talking about what we do and he said, "Every night it's like we go out there and we just want to leave all the folks in the audience looking at us going, 'Wow, did they just do that? Did that just happen? Really, did that happen?'" And I said, "There's a cool title." And for some odd reason, I really liked it because I really like Talladega Nights. (laughing)

Songfacts: Oh, no. (laughing)

Joshua: I'm a huge Ricky Bobby fan, so I was like we're just going to steal that and roll with it. And so we just started writing it that way. The music had always been a call-and-answer type of thing, like the fiddle comes in and then the other instruments. So we decided to make a theme out of that whole lyric, as well. Basically it's what we try to do on stage every night. That song really represents, I think, our attitude towards music and just having a good time and trying to put on a good show.

Songfacts: Now, you're talking about the call and answer; I know that you've got this song written, you've got it down in the studio. Do you get on stage and veer from the path on this song a lot, since it's a call and answer?

Joshua: Mountain Heart's an interesting group, because we're able to cut in the studio various different ways. Mountain Heart originated in bluegrass music. So drums and keyboards and all these things didn't really exist. So when we go out live, we still don't carry a drummer 100% of the time, so obviously there's going to be a little bit of a difference, because you're not going to have the big rockin' drum kit and amplified fiddles and stuff like that going on.

But I think we try to stay pretty close to the record. We definitely perform the songs a lot like what's on the CD. But as far as the call and answer stuff, I push to get the audience into it because it's a super simple lyric that you can kind of bob your head along to and get into.

It's an interesting thing with that project. We actually auditioned that song and several other songs live for at least a season out on the road. And we were just playing these songs out on the road every night and the response was, "Wow, where did that come from? How do we get that? Are you all going to cut it? What's the deal?" And I think that's the way that we actually chose every song for this EP, because we started our own label and we just decided that we were going to do it on our own for once. And so there was nothing pulling us in any direction and there's no restraint, so we're able to just be like, "Well, what do you all want to hear?" And basically our fan base told us what to cut. And so this project is definitely kind of like giving back to the fans that we've gotten from various markets. There's some very traditional bluegrass stuff in there, and then there's a song like "That Just Happened" that feels like a Big & Rich kind of cut.

And the reason for that is, we went out and over the course of probably 150 shows we played these songs and figured out, well, these are the right ones. Let's just pay for it out of our pockets and we're going to do this ourselves and do it for the fans.

Songfacts: You came to the band with about 11 years worth of songs written that you did yourself. Are there any songs that you debuted for the fans live that you were really hoping would get a huge response, but didn't, that you were hoping to include on this?

Joshua: Oddly enough, it's the exact opposite. There's a couple of songs that I really wanted to include on this project. And our goal was to spend a little less money in the studio and do an EP instead of doing 11 or 12 songs. Then we started getting up to the 6th and 7th song number and spending tons of money in the studio and all that good stuff, so we had to start cutting songs out of the picture.

But there was a song called "Wonderin' if You're Wonderin' About Me." It's a song that I wrote solo - shoot, it's probably been three or four years back, maybe longer. But it's basically a Sam Cooke tribute. It's just me and the piano and it's super stripped down and it sounds ancient, but it's kind of a contemporary flavor, too. But I get requests for it every single night. And I still play it out on our shows. And we actually started working on it in the studio and just ran out of time and money and all that good stuff.

And there's another song called "One More For the Road" that I wrote with a friend of mine in Nashville. I really wanted to include that on this EP, as well, but we just started running out of spots on the project. And it's the exact opposite of what you're saying there, because since then we've been doing it every night and people are like, "How do we get that?" And I'm like, "Crap, we should have cut both these songs."

Songfacts: You'll do that on the solo, though, since you're going to put out some solo stuff.

Joshua: Yeah. Actually, I just started gathering everything. I've been real blessed to get in and work with tremendous writers and talent there. And I've got this catalogue of material. I've had stuff pitched to Dann Huff for Rascal Flatts and songs on hold with these guys. And I'm writing now with some of the guys in Diamond Rio for their next project.

What I'm getting at is I've been fortunate and got just tons of great tunes in the vault. And I think I'm going to go ahead and do something very similar to what Mountain Heart did with the EP, I think I'm just going to do a solo 6 or 7 song EP with some of my favorite tunes that I just want to hear and I want to let people hear. The songs are a little more country flavored and more mainstream feeling. But I have hundreds of tunes that are just my faves out of all the things that I've ever been a part of. So I'm looking forward to getting to do that. And of the two songs I mentioned, I think I'm going to include a little added bonus, just a stripped down version of the song "Wonderin' if You're Wonderin'," and "One More For the Road" that I told you about. Because it'll be good out on the road; when people ask for it, I'll be able to go, "Yeah, I actually did include that on this project." It's a selling point, I think, for my solo thing.

Songfacts: What is "Wonderin' if You're Wonderin' About Me" about? Who did you write that song for?

Joshua: I play some casinos solo and when I do that I play a lot of Ray Charles and old Michael McDonald and some of that kind of stuff. And even some Sam Cooke stuff. And they've always had this super soulful heartfelt lyric and melody and performance. And I was just looking for something like that when I started writing the song. I was living in Raleigh at the time, I was writing at the keyboard over in the corner of this tiny little house I was renting. And the song just kind of fell out.

"Wonderin' if You're Wonderin'" was just: I'm lonely, are you sitting here, are you somewhere right now doing exactly what I'm doing, sitting here thinking about you? That was basically the thought behind the title of it. Just a guy that's head over heels in love with this girl. The verses are this guy going through life wondering if he should try and move on, or do you feel this way and how can I let you know how I feel kind of thing.

Songfacts: Based on personal experience?

Joshua: …Maybe. I guess at that time I was definitely dating another girl. But at that time, it had been a year or so since I split up with my first real serious high school crush or whatever. I dated this girl forever. And I think once we separated, I'd say the title was inspired by that situation. Like, I'm definitely still attracted to you and I remember every little detail about you and your personality and every little thing. And I wonder are you completely over me, am I completely out of your mind, or are you somewhere right now thinking, "What's Josh doing?"

So I think that girl and that relationship probably had something to do with that song.

Songfacts: Does that segue somewhere into "Same Old Heartache"? Talk about a wrenching song. Wow.

Joshua: Yeah. Well, first of all, with Mountain Heart, you can't just sit down and write a song. The everyday song typically doesn't work for Mountain Heart. All of these guys are rooted in bluegrass. And so there's a certain kind of kick that a song has to have for them to really be inspired to want to perform it. For Mountain Heart a lot of times I'll try to work with somebody that's more of a bluegrass writer. I know that we're going to get the guys' attention with those types of songs a lot easier, because that's where they come from. But when we sat down, I think we started writing that to fit Dan Tyminski's voice (Alison Krauss and Union Station).

The way that song came about was definitely more instrumental based. And it was like, okay, let's go to a key that I know these guys like to sing in and start piecing the melody together and just the cliché, "same crap different day." That was where that came from. And it just kind of fell out of either my mouth or my co-writer's mouth. But we started that song with Mountain Heart or a more bluegrass type of act in mind, and it was more of a groove-based approach as far as the writing. We were wanting something that just felt good to play. And it felt like a really dark melody and really kind of dark song. And then the hook just fell out, like "That Just Happened," and we pieced it together that way.

Songfacts: So you guys mostly come up with the music before you come up with any kind of lyrics, is that how it typically happens?

Joshua: Well, the couple of songs that we talked about, that's how it happened. But I definitely work with guys on a weekly basis that'll come in with this killer hook and I'm like, Oh, definitely, this could go that way or it could go this way, or we could turn that around this way and use it in three or four different scenarios in life or whatever. So sometimes songs are, I think, very much predetermined, when you come in with a hook line or even a story that you want to write about.

Songfacts: Has that happened with the Mountain Heart gang yet?

Joshua: Our live record from 2007, I had a song on there that I had the title for first. And it was a solo write. I literally was 18 or 19 years old when I wrote the song. But the song was called "Who's the Fool Now?" And that's an old Mountain Heart cut. I definitely had that title and that whole idea in mind before I started putting music to it.

It's interesting, with that song, once I started writing it, it immediately screamed "Vince Gill" and then the changes felt like Ray Charles, too. And as I started putting it together, it just felt way more like traditional country and Vince Gill and some of those older country artists. But I started piecing that together in a very old-fashioned kind of way. And when we cut it, we recorded it live. It was another one of those songs we'd been playing out live for probably two years before we got to use it on the live record. But I guess I'm trying to get around that one. (laughing) Somehow or another, I'm going to get around to this point.

The first time I performed at the Opry with the guys, one of the first two songs that we played at the Opry was "Who's the Fool Now?" And it was kind of an introduction for me to the Opry, and I'd never performed with Mountain Heart. It was my first weekend of gigs with the guys. Anyway, we played that song and got just a huge, ridiculous response. I'll never forget that. I had my eyes closed when I finished the song and I bowed or whatever, and I looked up and the manager, Pete Fisher at the Opry, he's like, "No, you're not done. We're going to skip commercial. You got a standing ovation, you're going to do another song." And I looked up and the whole room was standing up for a song I'd written. So it was really cool.

But "Who's the Fool Now" was the title that I had at some point got down on a legal pad or napkin or something. That song just was another one of those crying in your beer sad love stories and it kind of wrote itself, I think.

Songfacts: At 18 years old, what in the world did you experience that could have caused something like that? Eighteen.

Joshua: Well, I might have been 19 or 20 years old. (laughs) I had a tremendous family around me, but I saw a lot of stuff early on, with my mom and dad splitting up and my dad going through a weird time in his life with relationship stuff. And when they split up, we didn't see each other nearly as much. "Who's the Fool Now?" was obviously not inspired by this situation. But I think you never want to write about something that you don't know about or something you haven't lived.

I think I felt like I'd grown up really fast. I mean, I started playing bars when I was 12 years old. I was leaving school early and going and setting up at a club somewhere and playing a honky tonk when I was a young kid. So I would do that on Friday or Saturday and then go to church on Sunday and play. It was either the bar or chapel, one of the two, on the weekends.

You see a lot of stuff and you start to understand life and relationships and the good and bad. I got to see that at a real young age. But seeing my mom and dad split up and being in some puppy love situations, I got an idea of what breaking up or falling in love can be like. So at that age I was probably writing about something that I haven't lived 100%.

Songfacts: And hopefully you won't.

Joshua: I was gonna say, now I could. I could just knock it out of the park. No, I'm just kiddin'.

Songfacts: No you're not.

Joshua: Maybe you're right. But it's funny now, I remember another song that I wrote, hasn't been cut yet, called "The Truth About Lying." That was a title that I had written similar to "Who's the Fool Now?" as far as just something that I was like, this feels like it could go a lot of directions and it could just be really cool. So I'm going to save this idea. And I got together with a couple of guys at Warner Brothers, and one of them is actually the guy I'm writing with in Diamond Rio, Mr. Jimmy Olander. He's a guitar player for Diamond Rio, and he's been with Warner forever, and he's a real good writer and just a cool guy, too.

Anyway, we got together and wrote this song. And "The Truth About Lying," for me, it immediately screamed that if you're out cheating or whatever and you're getting away with it, a majority of the time it's harder to just live with it than it is to 'fess up and tell your partner what you did. So "The Truth About Lying," that song is actually about running around on your significant other and then them having to look at you with honest eyes every night. So it's a really cool story and it has a couple of twists in it. It just ended up being a well written song. But that was another tune that I had the title for way before we ever started the song.

Songfacts: And what sort of experience did you have that inspired that?

Joshua: (laughing) Well, I can't admit to that. Even as a young guy that usually doesn't have a conscience (laughs) you start feeling guilty if you're running around or if you're seeing a girl and the person you're dating has no idea and completely trusts you. And that's what the song talks about. It's like at some point - I think it's in the second verse - the girl admits to him that she has been checking up on him. And it was getting on her conscience. I'm trying to remember the lyric, but she was feeling guilty for feeling like she needed to go check his cell phone or follow him around. So it just took the microscope and put it even more on the guy who actually is cheating, and his girlfriend, who should be furious, feels bad about something she's done, which was checking up on him.

So it's kind of interesting how all that played out. That was another one that I had the title for and knew what it was going to be about as soon as I got the idea for it.

Songfacts: That sounds like the perfect modern day country song, actually.

Joshua: Well, I love artists that are completely honest. They'll write about an addiction or being a drunk or whatever, and say "I." Not "Bubba down at the bar." They say, "I - I have this issue." Because all of a sudden, if it's real, if that is a real issue, if it's something they've lived, then they're gonna say it, they're going to be completely convicted by what they're saying, they're going to pull you into that. And to me it's like, if you got a star, Tim McGraw or somebody up there talking about cheating, that's pretty heavy. Because it's a big deal, because the fans are going to be like, "Wow, did he really do that?" And that's what I'm getting at, is that song is really hard to get cut because everybody wants to say "I've got a friend who told me about this situation." And the fact is I want it to be first person. That's how the song's written.

I remember pitching it to a couple of country artists, they're like, "Man, we love this song, we love everything about it. But it's very hard for us to sing about cheating on our wives." And I was like, "Well…" In the country world, it's like they're afraid to talk about anything. But a lot of people really like the song.

Songfacts: I want to highlight "Just Get Up and Go."

Joshua: Well, I hate to have a similar answer on that as far as the stuff off that record. There's a couple of guys in the bluegrass community that have asked me for just a hard driving standard in-your-face bluegrass song that's what they call mean and cold or whatever. A driving bluegrass type of tune. And so we just sat down and we were like, "We're gonna pick the key that everybody wants to play in and pick the groove that they all want to play in, and pick a range and just start hammering away." So that one came out a lot like "Different Day, Same Ole Heartache." I mean, the title of that, it was like I remember thinking, "Is that title really strong enough? It kind of feels a little weird." But it was like we were writing a song almost for the musicians. It just had such a really good feel for a bluegrass musician. So I think the story was coming together and it just fell out and it was like, "Yeah, this feels great."

So we started working on work tapes and we wanted to include something that felt very traditional and very old-school Mountain Heart. And the sound and presentation of that song on this record is very similar to what Mountain Heart was all about when they first started. So we didn't want to lose our bluegrass crowd and I think that song was just tailored perfectly for our guys and instrumentation. So that one was just kind of like, yes, this is something these guys will love to play and it's something that bluegrass radio can use. I think that was our whole motive behind working on it.

Songfacts: Is bluegrass music meant to be kind of dark and bleak?

Joshua: When I'm writing country stuff, there's so much more substance, there's very detailed storylines. But when you go to writing a bluegrass song, there's like pieces of folk involved. When you think of a typical Nashville song, there is a theme; there is an intro that's 15 seconds long, there's a first verse that gets to the chorus about 60 seconds, and then there's a turnaround second verse, and you might do the bridge or you might just do chorus, solo, whatever. So there's definitely a way of the typical Nashville style of writing. And it seems like in bluegrass you want to get out of that. It seems like they typically try to get out of that a little bit and just do something different.

I'm friends with some of the guys in Alison Krauss's group and they tell me that for the songs she really wants to cut, they don't want any particulars. They don't want to put a story at any timeframe, because they want a very vague story. Like, we got to tell this love story in as little words as possible in the most mysterious way possible. It's like we're not going to give any details about how she found out about this or that, but she did. And we kind of get that, but we don't say it. And that's the way a lot of that stuff has to be written. And it typically is very not-happy feeling.

That's another thing about bluegrass music. There are certain notes in any scale that make a song feel dark or happy or whatever. Like a major third has a very happy-go-lucky kind of feel when you hear it voiced in the chord, and when you play a minor third, it starts to get a dark sound.

But my point in saying that is when I first started in the band I was coming from rock and roll and country and stuff like that. But when I joined the band I noticed, "You guys aren't really voicing any thirds and you're not voicing any colors in your chords." And I remember them saying, "Well, it's neater that way." And I remember thinking it's kind of weird. But ultimately they were going for a very, I guess, driven kind of sound, and the less note choice that you put in the middle of the chords… I don't know how to explain it, but it's almost like it plays to that kind of vague, cold thing that we were talking about. And I noticed that on the trend of almost every song, they're voicing very little in their chords and their singing is the same thing; the melodies are very similar on a lot of the songs.

But yeah, it seems like there is a lot of heartbreak and depth. And another thing I've noticed, there's a lot of old war stories. It's like, really? Like they read a history book before they got into writing the stuff. Some of it's really, really cool, but it's such a different approach to songwriting, and I think that's another trend that you'll see is lots of old stories about two or three generations, and this one went off to war and that happened, and this one died. Just like old Wild West stories or something. And it's kind of crazy but kind of cool at the same time. Outside of the movies, I've never heard any other genre use that, so it's pretty cool to try to write that way.

And both of those cuts that we're talking about as far as the grassier stuff on that EP definitely were written that way. We had a bluegrass artist in mind, and we were kind of going for that style and that sound. Nowadays, it seems like everybody in Nashville, whatever is happening on the radio - and this is the smart thing to do - but whatever is just really happening, they typically will try to go with that trend, like, "Let's try to write something like what Lady Antebellum's doing." And I've gotten so into, "No, let's just do something really interesting. Let's do something different. Let's not write the typical beer-drinking and getting in a fight down at the bar and talk about your tractor and your dogs. Let's tell a story."

I come from playing a lot of old jazz and Ray Charles. And those chord changes and melody changes and ideas in those songs were phenomenal. I just want to start using just a little bit of that - let's bring a little bit of that really interesting stuff to the table in a country session. Because it's that special stuff that makes a Lady Antebellum hit. It's something different that everybody's like, "Oh, wow, this is the new thing." You're not trying to be a trendsetter or change what everybody's doing, but let's just go in here with an open mind and be completely original and open and roll with it. So that's been my approach for a year now.

Songfacts: Excellent. What else should people know about this Mountain Heart EP?

Joshua: There's a lot of different styles covered on this project. And that's because we went out and we tried all these different songs. I mean, covers of "The Whipping Post?" Who needs to cover "The Whipping Post" again? But the reason we recorded it is because this is a fan project, it literally is. Every track, there's a reason for it. "Even if It Breaks My Heart" is a song that I didn't write, but it's just a great ballad that's directed straight toward country-slash-like a VH1 crossover kind of song. So that record is very diverse, and the musicianship and the songwriting is just killer. And I think it really appeals to a wide range of people.

In the coming couple of years I'm definitely going to be doing a solo record, and I think the first one's going to be a full band project. Well, a full band on the recordings, and it's going to be more of a mainstream country kind of record. And then I've already got plans, I think immediately after I'm going to go in and just do a me-and-the-piano. Kind of like when you watch "Wonderin' if You're Wonderin'," a lot like that feels like. Just me and a piano singing the stuff that I love. And I think that'll be something that I get into almost immediately as soon as this other solo record comes out. Which I haven't even got good and started on yet, so who knows when that'll be? (laughs)

Songfacts: Your voice has so many different qualities and you use it in so many different ways that it's just always changing, it's never the same, and I could listen to it for hours.

Joshua: Thank you. You know what, I have good days and bad days, I guess. I was singing in the house here last night, when we got back we were all sitting around playing and I'm singing. And I noticed just how bad I sounded. Could have been the alcohol.

Songfacts: Ya think? (laughing)

Joshua: (laughs) But my thing is I really, at all times, just go for emotion, and I think people respond to that. Whether it's in tune or in time or the wrong words or whether you're crying or drinking, I think when you're convicted by what you're doing, people will absolutely respond to it. I really deeply believe what I'm singing. There's no way around that. I'm absolutely in it when I'm singing it. And if I can't get to that place, I feel like I've failed.

I guess my point is I just want to live in the song while I'm delivering it. My ultimate goal is to just be emotional and be real about it.

Our chat with Josh just happened on March 31, 2011. And for someone who'd been celebrating at his bandmate's bachelor party until the wee hours the night before, there was not a shred of evidence in his voice. Well played.
More Songwriter Interviews

Comments: 1

  • Jess Lawrence from Norfolk Va. Now Originally Nags Head N.c.Love to hear you sing Josh! The combination that you guys have formed is fantastic!
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