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Heart of Gold: Mountain Heart performs on Jan. 6 at Infinity Music Hall & Bistro

There are traditional bluegrass acts, and then there are bands like Mountain Heart. While it’s true that, since the late 1990s, when banjo player Barry Abernathy and fiddle player Jim Van Cleve started playing with singer Steve Gulley (who left in 2006), they’ve performed at the Grand Ole Opry more than 100 times. But the six-man group, who has shared stages over the years with John Fogerty, Travis Tritt, the Allman Brothers, Derek Trucks and Susan Tedeschi and many others from alternate musical worlds, have always seemed equally at home blowing on “Whipping Post” (as on their latest release, 2010’s That Just Happened) as they are on “Little Georgia Rose.” (Give it a listen: the 7/8 sections float by with a breezy swagger, piano and fiddle do decent stand-in jobs for the Allman’s two-guitar attack, and Schilling does a mean white-boy blues holler.)

The current lineup -- singer/multi-instrumentalist Josh Schilling, bassist Jason Moore, mandolin/dobro player Aaron Ramsey and guitarist Seth Taylor, along with Abernathy and Van Cleve -- is the result of a considerable amount of tweaking; Schilling replaced Gulley in 2007, and the guitar chair, mostly recently taken up by Taylor, a 19-year-old phenom, has felt at times like the drummer’s throne in Spinal Tap. (It’s actually more stable than that.) In a sense, Mountain Heart is a proving ground for up-and-comers, who sometimes go off and do their own thing after their tenure.

“The band started as a traditional bluegrass act with a lot of gospel,” said Schilling by phone on a car ride from Nashville to Virginia for the holidays. “But we reached a ceiling with that.” Around 2005, Schilling said, the band started noticing the trend among bluegrass entertainers -- big-name folks like Ricky Skaggs, Alison Krauss and Rhonda Vincent -- to venture (with ample rewards) into country-music territory.

Very quickly, Schilling said, Mountain Heart went from Gulley, “a very traditional bluegrass singer,” to hiring him. “I come from blues and rock and roll and soul. It’s interesting to see how that’s progressed. That’s why I got involved... I was playing Hammond organ and had a horn section. They called me and said, ‘Do you want to play bluegrass?’ And I said, ‘Hell, no.’ But then I listened to it and said, ‘I see opportunity in it for me.’”

“They never pushed me to sound like a bluegrass singer,” Schilling continued. “It’s not like [new guitarist] Seth [Taylor] is going to be backing up Brad Paisley or Carrie Underwood... He’s going to have a tremendous platform… Everyone who’s been in it is a phenomenal player. I’ve got a lot of friends in big country acts, and they really respect what we do.”

When they make their way to the Northeast, Schilling said, the crowd response to Mountain Heart is “phenomenal.” “I think it’s a northern thing. I mean, Mountain Heart in particular goes over pretty well wherever we go because it’s an entertaining band. But when we go up north, it seems like maybe the crowds aren’t getting enough of that kind of music. I’m sure they do, but maybe they are so numb to it down south. We have great crowds down south, but we have electric crowds up north.”

Mountain Heart, Jan. 6, 7 p.m., $30, $45, Infinity Music Hall & Bistro, 20 West Greenwoods Rd., Norfolk, (860) 666-6306, infinityhall.com.

Write to mhamad@hartfordadvocate.com. Follow me on Twitter @MikeHamad.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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