hough speaking over the phone from Nashville, where he and his bandmates are preparing to debut their new Skaggs Family release "No Other Way" on Eddie Stubbs' widely popular classic country and bluegrass radio show on WSM, Mountain Heart's Steve Gulley is speaking, almost subconsciously as the single voice of five individual, distinguished musicians who together just happen to comprise one of the most exciting and innovative bands to appear on the bluegrass scene in the last decade.
"We took a lot more chances with this record musically, I think, than the first two. I'm proud of everything we've recorded, but this is the most complete record we've recorded, for sure, from five personalities," he says. "I think we got them all in there. All of our backgrounds come through, and I think we got a little more than we bargained for in some cases. This record is more fulfilling, for me, than any we've cut."
The core of the band (guitarist Gulley, banjo player Barry Abernathy and fiddler Jim Van Cleve) formed in 1998, following the time all three spent touring as part of Quicksilver, the longtime band led by legendary bluegrass showman Doyle Lawson.
In the four short years since, they are considered one of the bands playing the top festivals. Gulley is quick to say that it's just a case of kindred spirits finding common musical ground, not reliance on the brilliance of a single, focal individual.
"I don't think you can go into this forming of a band, or beginning of, really, a musical idea, such as a new band, and say 'we're gonna do this,' and 'we're gonna do that.' I think you can say 'let's try this,' and 'let's try that.' That bodes well when you're trying to have a distinctive niche or a distinctive sound in music."
"It's always worked that way for the really great bands that I've always been interested in, from Flatt & Scruggs to people like the Johnson Mountain Boys and J.D. Crowe and the New South,...a big band for me in the '70s as a teenager. All those bands had one common denominator, and that was a spark or just something that just jumped off the grooves of that record into your ears, and I think anybody that listens to music would say that about certain groups that touched them."
Warming to his theme, Gulley's smile comes all the way through the phone line as he acknowledges that, more than anything, they're having as good a time off-stage as they are on-stage.
"I think our big thing is chemistry. I really think that's the biggest thing we have going for us. We've had a couple of band member changes, and although they were amicable, you always have to replace good people with good people again, and we've been able to do that. Our chemistry off-stage is great...we're like a bunch of 14-year old kids on the road. We have a lot of fun, we enjoy being with one other as people, and we really love to play and sing with each other, this group of five people. I think that is what makes our sound different. As far as musically, I think our sound is different because we've taken five personalities...and tried to incorporate them into a more or less distinctive sound."
The band changes Gulley mentions resulted in the addition of mandolin player Adam Steffey, a longtime presence in Alison Krauss' band, Union Station, and Jason Moore, a veteran bassist who came over from the highly regarded James King Band.
Gulley is pleased that, through it all, the hallmark of the "Mountain Heart Sound" has been that folks can't decide which is better, their vocals or their instrumentals.
"We're not just a vocal band, and we're not just an instrumental band. There's a lot of great bands and a lot of great players in this business...but I think as a band, we're all role-oriented, we're band players, there's no really big stars in our bunch, and I don't think there ever will be. Our attitudes and our chemistry bode well for us to have a distinctive sound."
As distinctive as that sound is, Gulley quickly agrees that the time spent with Lawson was good schooling, and the excitement they carry on stage with them owes more than a little to the lessons they learned from him.
"Doyle's biggest talent is being able to put a band together and make it fit. You can't be around Doyle Lawson without learning something. He's the consummate entertainer, and he knows how to handle himself on and off stage. That's a big thing with us too, not only in the way we perform, but also in the way we do business, and so I learned all those things from Doyle to a certain degree...of course our show is really high energy. That wasn't by planning as much as by simple human nature. Our chemistry is good enough, but, of course, we learned a lot of valuable lessons from Doyle, and the entertainment aspect is always in the forefront for him because he always conducted himself as a steady and consummate entertainer."