Many bands weather a shifting lineup through the years — members come and go, and sometimes are even replaced decades later (just look at Adam Lambert tackling Freddie Mercury’s vocals as frontman of Queen). But the new incarnation of jam-heavy bluegrass crew Mountain Heart takes this one step further: founded in 1998, their aggressive, acoustic-heavy sound is preserved even though the group no longer boasts a single original player. And the result is a fresh take on an old classic, something apparent on their new single, “Blue Skies,” streaming exclusively below.
“‘Blue Skies’ has every element of the music we all grew up loving,” lead vocalist Josh Shilling tells Rolling Stone Country about the song from their upcoming album, also called Blue Skies (due May 6). “It’s soulful and grooves like The Allman Brothers or the Grateful Dead, it’s a song we can jam on as well as send to radio. It’s hip with elements of gospel and JamGrass roots, it allows us all to stretch out vocally, and most of all, it delivers an inspiring and uplifting message — one that we all live by.”
Now comprising Shilling, who also plays guitar and piano, along with Molly Cherryholmes (fiddle and vocals), Seth Taylor (lead guitar and banjo), Aaron Ramsey (mandolin and vocals) and Jeff Partin (vocals and bass), the band — in all forms and lineups — has seen a varied history. They’ve taken the Grand Ole Opry stage more than 130 times and appeared with the likes of Lynyrd Skynyrd, George Jones, The Punch Brothers, Levon Helm and Alison Krauss, as well as fellow fusers of folk and bluegrass Yonder Mountain String Band. Though no original members remain, the new Mountain Heart manages to straddle the line between complete reinvention and staying true to their roots — there’s a palpable electric current running through “Blue Sky,” while still maintaining the relaxed, festival-ready pulse they’ve become known for over the course of more than a decade.
“Blue Skies,” with its meandering riffs, Shillings’s laid-back vocals and slices of mandolin, bass and fiddle that roll in like they’re part of an impromptu porch jam, feels like a long lost collision between the Allman Brothers and some expert bluegrass players, more concerned with capturing a chugging folk-rock sound than anything remotely purist. In fact, the dusty, locomotive atmosphere is not unlike the Allman’s own “Blue Sky” (from 1972’s Eat a Peach), something the band now cops to with a laugh — Mountain Heart has even covered “Whipping Post” numerous times as part of their live show.
“Late in the day, after playing ‘Blue Skies’ a dozen times and deciding we would try it on stage at some point, Aaron [Ramsey] spoke up in frustration,” Shilling recalls about the first time he started chugging out the song during rehearsal. “[He] said, ‘Dude, why in the world are we spending all this time on another Allman Brothers cover?’ I kind of laughed and said, ‘Man, I wrote this one about a week ago!’ He couldn’t believe it. We all started laughing and got back to work.”
Blue Skies will be released May 6th.