Friday, July 28, 2006

Mountain Heart (Bay Weekly, 2006)

The Bay Weekly is my hometown paper. There's a little error in the bio at the end; this was actually my third story for the paper. (How quickly we forget.)

‘Well, I Didn’t Expect That’

Bluegrass band Mountain Heart’s appearance at budding St. Leonard stage a happy surprise

by Pamela Murray Winters

“When was the last time you ever heard a bluegrass band fill in for Lynyrd Skynyrd?”

That’s how Clay Jones, guitarist for Mountain Heart, described a recent gig to his wife. Skynyrd was scheduled to open for country stars Montgomery Gentry in Virginia Beach when the venerable southern rockers had to pull out because of a medical emergency. The last-minute addition of Mountain Heart to the bill garnered acclaim like this note on the group’s Internet forum: “YOU guys don’t need to be opening for ANYBODY.”

Fortunately for Chesapeake Country, on July 8, Mountain Heart opens for Travis Tritt, who returns for a second time to Chesapeake Country, at the Mercantile Southern Maryland Bank Pavilion at the St. Leonard Volunteer Fire Department. It’s the second of three shows in the firehouse’s second concert series; Jo Dee Messina played there earlier this year, and Miranda Lambert and Jason Aldean are coming on August 25.

Masterminding the firehouse concert series is Dan Baker, chairman of the fire company’s board of directors —“which means everything that needs to get done,” he jokes.

The firehouse on Calvert Beach Road maintains a quiet, laid-back atmosphere on a weekday afternoon, but civic activities are frequent there. “We’re the focal point in the community,” Baker says, “and we love having the community consider us as such.”

But civic groups “deserve their own place to meet,” Baker says, in an “area that is really blossoming.”

Hence the concerts, proceeds from which will go to build a separate community center. Baker and company started the concert series last year with the Charlie Daniels Band; Lone Star also played that summer.

Michael Jaworek, of the Birchmere music hall in Alexandria, Virginia, brings Baker and a list of potential performers, from which artists are chosen that best suit the firehall tastes and finances.

The outdoor venue, next to the station and easily reached from Route 4, features a permanent stage and an ample seating area. Food is served by local nonprofits, raising money for their own causes. Beer is sold and rules are few, but the concerts maintain a family atmosphere.

Professional companies handle sound and lighting, and the group has enlisted TicketMaster for ticket sales this season. Though sales for the show are brisk, Baker won’t hazard a guess on whether the 3,500 seats will sell out: “I’m not a betting man,” he said.

Baker is likewise reticent when asked about his dream artist for the series, but finally admits that he’d like to host Alison Krauss. He also mentions Michael McDonald and the Doobie Brothers. Concerts have tended toward country music, but the committee is not averse to bringing in other genre.

With Mountain Heart, Baker might be doing just that. Jones, who cut his teeth on bands like Lynyrd Skynyrd but played with Ricky Skaggs’ Kentucky Thunder before joining Mountain Heart, says of the group’s material: “If it’s a good lyrical song and it means something to us, we’ll work the song up.”

From the group’s latest disc, Wide Open, he cites fiddle player Jim Van Cleve’s composition “Deadwood”: “It’s really a jazz-oriented song with a bluegrass edge.”

Musical eclecticism is not new to bluegrass, but Mountain Heart’s stagecraft is unusual. Citing people’s narrow expectations when they see a banjo player walk onstage, Jones says, “The type of bluegrass we play is high-energy. We have wireless microphones, and we move around. It’s really like a rock show.”

One difference in the performers’ music, says Jones, is “we don’t travel with drums. We get our rhythm without drums. Adam Steffey, our mandolin player, is the closest thing we have to a drummer.”

Jones is excited to be on the same bill as Tritt, a music veteran whose long hair and bad-boy image haven’t scared off mainstream-country success: “I’ve been a fan of his music ever since he came out,” says Jones. That was nearly 20 years ago.

Tritt’s voice is part of the appeal: “He can sing from the bottom of the basement to the top of the moon,” Jones says.

Another part is Tritt’s shade of blue: “He’s very rock-and-roll oriented,” Jones notes. “He’s got that energy and drive that we have. He can play even a slow song with a drive in it.” Consider, he says, Tritt’s 1991 hit “Here’s a Quarter (Call Someone Who Cares).”

Local audiences will have two more chances to enjoy Mountain Heart this year: The group is scheduled for the Deale Bluegrass Festival & Car Show on September 16 and Annapolis’ Rams Head Tavern on November 5. Jones, who hasn’t played our area before, says he’s looking forward to the experience.

As for Baker, Mountain Heart will be a new musical experience: A different artist was scheduled to open when he initially booked Tritt. But the group is able to deliver on the series’ expectations of rousing music with a broad appeal. Surprises are likely to be happy ones.

“The best compliment we’ve had in quite some time,” says Jones, “was Well, I didn’t expect that!”

Pamela Murray Winters writes about music and other arts for The Washington Post, Dirty Linen and other publications. This is her first story for Bay Weekly. She lives in Churchton when she's not loitering at Fabulous Brew.

Bay Weekly, June ?, 2006

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