‘Never Practice, Always Perform’

‘Never Practice, Always Perform’

A Q&A with Josh Shilling of Mountain Heart
By Geoff Gehman
The members of Mountain Heart are performing an uncommon version of
“Whipping Post” that would make the Allman brothers cheer from the grave. String
players trade lashing licks in a shifting circle, whipping rock, bluegrass and jazz with
greased-lightning efficiency and excitement. Pianist Josh Shilling, who grew up on the
Allman Brothers Band, balances fluid, funky runs with caressing, cutting vocals. A
cranking, cracking-good coda seals the deal on a mountain jam that makes acoustic
electric.
This strikingly original “Whipping Post,” which appears on YouTube, typifies
Mountain Heart’s agility, diversity and versatility. The five musicians have placed studio
and live songs on Billboard’s bluegrass charts, shared stages with everyone from George
Jones to Lynyrd Skynyrd, and played the Grand Ole Opry a whopping 130-plus times. On
June 15 they’ll juice the Mauch Chunk Opera House with the Marshall Tucker Band’s
“This Ol Cowboy” ; the original “Me and My Guitar,” a concert staple with guitar whiz
Tony Rice, and “No Complaints,” a Little Feat-style/New Orleans second-line track from
their latest album, “Soul Searching” (Compass Records Group”). The 2018 release
features the first ensemble-written tune (“Restless Wind”) and such guest heroes as Scott
Vestal, the innovative banjoist and luthier.
The quintet is anchored by Shilling, a Mountain Heart member since 2007, a
popular Hammond B3 organist in Nashville sessions, and a contributor of songs to
Grammy Award-winning records by the Infamous Stringdusters and a family band led by
bluegrass titan Del McCoury. Below, in an email interview, the native of Martinsville,
Va., discusses his sweeping education as a rock/soul keyboardist/singer/writer, a special
hug from Vince Gill at the Grand Ole Opry, and the mantra “Never practice, always
perform.”
Q: Can you remember the first song you couldn’t forget, that turned you upside
down and inside out?
A: Gosh…there are so many that come to mind. I remember being like four or
five years old and someone teaching me “Lean On Me” by Bill Withers on piano. It’s
obviously easy for beginners to learn, but I remember falling in love with that style of
soulful playing and singing. My dad’s records were about all I listened to as a kid. There
was some classic country and bluegrass in the mix, but he had a ton of classic rock
albums. I remember listening to multiple Allman Brothers Band tunes like “Jessica” and
“Rambling Man” as well as Billy Powell (Lynyrd Skynyrd’s piano player) features like
“Call Me the Breeze” and “Free Bird” and being totally hooked. I learned every piano
solo I could by guys like Billy Powell, Chuck Leavell, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Leon
Russell. Then I eventually found Stevie Wonder, Dr. John, Michael McDonald and Ray
Charles and life totally changed!

Q: What was the first tune that, because of its craft and creativity, made you want
to write tunes?

A: I’m not sure to be honest. I started writing lyrics as a kid. It always seemed
very natural to create music to me. I was always listening to soul singers and love ballads
by artists like Otis Redding or Aretha Franklin. One of the first real cuts I got as a writer
was a Mountain Heart tune in 2007 called “Who’s the Fool Now” from our live album
“Road That Never Ends.” When I think back about that song, it always puts me in a “If
You Ever Have Forever In Mind” by Vince Gill state of mind. I think those types of
timeless classics are where I pulled from as a writer early on. Who doesn’t need more
“These Arms of Mine” or “You Are So Beautiful” in their life? I’ve had around 60 songs
recorded by artists in nearly all genres since then.

Q: Who was/is your most valuable musical mentor and what was his/her most
valuable lesson to you?
A: Super tough question. One of the most memorable quotes/lessons for me is
“Never practice, always perform” from [trombonist] Mic Gillette of Tower of Power. He
told me that during a rehearsal years ago. I think he was saying “Give the show and every
day of your life everything you have. Perform and live like it’s the last time, even if it’s
just a rehearsal.”
I’ve been lucky to be surrounded by people who always gave me great advice.
Monster musicians. A few other things that have been said to me that come to mind are
“If you don’t get your foot off that sustain pedal, I’m going to stick a Coke bottle
between the pedal and the floor so you can’t use it anymore,” meaning: You’re making
the band sound washy or muddy because so much of your piano playing is sustaining
over everything. The same sound man in a honky-tonk in Virginia could be heard
screaming “Take your left hand off the keys and leave it in your lap” because I wasn’t
playing what the bass player was, and he hated that! Lastly, “The music business ain’t
coming to find you…get your ass to Nashville.”

Q: What did/do you dig about the Hammond B3 organ, and what Hammond B3
masters kept/keep your fingers and feet inspired?
A: I always loved the sound of a Hammond. It was literally on every track I loved
as a kid. Clapton, B.B. King, The Allmans, Tower of Power, “Mad Dogs and
Englishmen,” and all the Billy Preston tunes! I bought my first B3 when I was in my
teens and started learning my way around it. I think of playing organ like playing steel
guitar or even a saxophone because it’s so expressive. The organ role in a song never
stops evolving, and it somehow works on any track. I’ve literally recorded B3 on a
European rock track and then a bluegrass album in the same day.
Tweaking drawbars, vibrato, and swelling in and out of a track with the volume
pedal and Leslie switch to tastefully accompany the band and vocalist in real time, all
while having the ability to scream like a rock and roll guitarist with a single finger on a
single key, always turned me on. All that and the ability to sound like almost any
instrument by dialing in the tones, and also walk bass lines with that amazing Hammond
bass tone, makes the instrument my absolute favorite. These days in Nashville, I make
nearly half of my income off my old B3 in the studio. I record something on it almost
daily for records! The jazz masters I think of are of course guys like Jimmy Smith and
Joey DeFrancesco, but there are so many others that I love. Kofi Burbridge and Reese

Wynans come to mind along with great Nashville session guys like Tim Akers and Matt
Rollings.
Q: Can you put your finger on three memorable. indelible, forever highlights from
playing the Grand Ole Opry?
A: There are hundreds…maybe thousands. My first show with Mountain Heart
was actually a night at the Opry. I sang an original song of mine to close our set. I had a
head cold, but somehow struggled through the high note at the end of the song with my
eyes closed. One of the guys tapped me on the shoulder to look up, and when I did, I saw
the entire Ryman Auditorium was giving us a standing ovation. Talk about an Opry
debut! Another night, we were playing a Christmas special and I sang “Mary, Did You
Know” alone at the piano before set break. As they were pulling the curtains closed,
Vince Gill grabbed me and said, “Brother, that was beautiful,” and gave me a big hug.
He’s such a sweetheart. We’ve met so many great artists backstage at the Opry, but the
greatest memory I have is watching my little girls and family walk onto the Opry stage
with me and take pictures in the famous circle where so many of the greats stood and
performed!

Q: Can you put your finger on three significant sea changes in Mountain Heart
since you came aboard in 2007?
A: So many amazing things have happened over the last 12 years. One thing that
immediately comes to mind is the year Aaron Ramsey joined the band on mandolin.
Mountain Heart had always been a progressive bluegrass ensemble, but suddenly we had
a rock and roller playing mando and head-banging his long hair around like a member of
AC/DC. Aaron was the perfect transition. He is deeply steeped in all of the traditional
acoustic music, but likes to experiment and put on a show when playing live.
Another change that I think impacted us all was back around 2015 when we
started recording our album “Blue Skies.” That project is when we finally started
producing ourselves and recording songs mostly written from within the band. I feel like
the last two albums have so much mojo, and they sound honest and unique. Creating
music this way is such a fulfilling and organic process for us now.
A third sea change would be when we decided that I needed to be playing piano
more on stage and on records. Being in the bluegrass genre we had to all but hide the
piano at times. When we finally made the move to be authentic and true to our individual
talents and strengths, I think we started to really gel and function like a band and I also
think we really found our sound.

Q: What did you guys do on “Soul Searching” that you hadn’t done, even
couldn’t have done, on previous albums—i.e., sample/siphon New Orleans second line?
A: Recording a second line tune like “No Complaints” was definitely a first for
the band. We also used legendary drummer Kenny Malone on percussion on a song
called “Restless Wind” that also happens to be the only song the entire band has written
together. We also had a few legendary guests that are heroes of ours like Ronnie Bowman
on vocals, Stuart Duncan on violin, and Scott Vestal on banjo make appearances on this
project. We recorded totally live (lead vocals and music) on this one like we have been
on the last two projects.

Q: Have you made a recent discovery about making music—writing, recording,
singing, playing piano, interacting with spectators—that’s made it easier and more
satisfying?
A: To put it simple, I feel like I’ve started to become more comfortable in my
own skin as a performer and a creator over the last few years. I think the entire band has.
This allows me to work with less anxiety and stress on and off stage. I show up to write,
and I try to simply be myself. I do what I do and try to add to the session without putting
too much pressure on myself to be perfect. I sing the wrong notes, say dumb things, and
miss chords altogether sometimes still, but I’m trying to not let those imperfections keep
me awake at night.

Q: How would you like to improve as a musician?
A: I wish I had time in my life to go back to the beginning of music theory and
reading notation again. I can read, but I’m rusty. In Nashville almost every session
requires me to read number charts and have a quick ear, but I could absorb so much more
classic material if I felt more confident when reading music.

Q: What was your worst time in the music trade, when you seriously considered
abandoning your calling?
A: Don’t those times come along every fall when the touring music business
totally stops? Ha! I don’t know if I’ve ever seriously thought about quitting music
altogether, but I have gotten spoiled by being able to record at home. I had two young
daughters I hate to leave when we hit the road. I love playing live and touring with my
friends, but leaving family and especially small children makes it so tough!

Q: What was your favorite time in the music trade, when you felt—as Frank and
Liza sing—“king of the hill, top of the heap”?
A: I’ve been so blessed time and time again. Having songs recorded on two
Grammy-winning albums—“The Infamous Stringdusters” in 2018 and “The Travelin’
McCourys”” in 2019–made me feel on top of the world! Fronting the Marshall Tucker
Band on a song in my hometown in front of 25,000 people, singing “The Star-Spangled
Banner” on ESPN, touring with Lynyrd Skynyrd in 2008, being asked to play piano on
the first single of Del McCoury’s latest album, and, of course, becoming a father all come
to mind.

Q: So, Josh, what tops your Bucket List? Musicians have told me everything from
touring the world to world peace—quite a wide spectrum.
A: We’ve played so many amazing stages and events, but I would love to play
Carnegie Hall and Red Rocks in Colorado in my lifetime! I’ve received Grammy
certificates for songs I’ve had on records, but I’d love to someday receive a nomination
as an artist. Receiving one of those sexy trophies from the Grammys would be even more
amazing!

Q: And what tops your Fuckit List? Musicians have told me everything from
ending oppressive religions to assassinating all snakes.

A: After years of being consumed by the Nashville mainstream music business
and scene, I can honestly say that I’m no longer uber concerned with striking it rich with
a major record deal. I’m loving the freedom and control we have as artists, and I’ve never
been happier on stage or in my personal life. My favorite artists simply stay true to
themselves and make the music they love. If I can do that and make a living, I can’t
imagine anything else I could ask for!
Geoff Gehman is a former arts writer for The Morning Call in Allentown. He
shares Josh Shilling’s jones for Jerry Lee Lewis and Steve Wonder, the Allman Brothers
Band and Lynyrd Skynyrd. He can be reached at geoffgehman@verizon.net.