American folk music, to me, is a tradition that’s as rich as the stories behind it. Combining elements from song and story, folk music has been an American tradition for years and continues to thrive all across the country.
However, with music becoming more and more commercial over the past 100 years, the medium has taken motives of passion and expression and shifted to more monetary driven intentions, and it sometimes shows. This isn’t me trying to discredit any genre — it’s just a fact. As music has become more valuable, whether it be through increasing accessibility or just the sheer rise in the number of people listening to and producing their own music, it has become a commercial industry.
Despite this fact, Mountain Heart — a group that borrows from folk, Americana and bluegrass — continues to write music reflecting not only their roots, but the roots of the genre as a whole. Although they’ve been around for almost 20 years, they’ve remained true to their sound and kept a tradition of storytelling alive and well.
With their upcoming performance at The Ark’s Folk Festival, The Daily spoke with lead singer, guitarist and keyboardist Josh Shilling about the group's new album, playing in Ann Arbor and what it’s like to be in a group that stays true to its roots.
Coming fresh out of recording their currently untitled album, Shilling says that they’re ready to share some new stories with audiences and return to some old ones. After their last album, Blue Skies, Shilling told his groupmates that they were going to have a really tough time “beating the songs that they wrote for that album.”
Shilling said that this upcoming album is unique because while he had written most of the songs in the past, this album features songs written by the group as a collective.
“As a band, we’ve never sat around together and written one song,” Shilling shared, “but with this upcoming song, ‘Restless Wind’ … It was a collective effort. The songwriting is killer.”
And the recordings feel like just that.
“We’re playing and singing live,” he said. “It’s about as raw and organic as you can get. It feels like you’re in the room with us.”
Continuing on with their legacy of sharing themselves with the audience, both through a recorded medium and live on stage, Mountain Heart wanted this album to feel the same live as it feels recorded.
Even after playing all over the world, Ann Arbor remains as one of the group’s favorite cities.
“It really always feels like a second home to us,” Shilling said. “The fans are huge music lovers and supporters … They really make us feel at home. It’s really special.”
It’s one of the reasons why they come back almost every winter, and it’s why they decided to record their live album here back in 2007. Along with the fans, Shilling commented on how fantastic the acts are that play at The Ark, saying that he doesn’t think that he’s “ever seen a bad act play that stage … They just have great taste.”
“If I lived in Ann Arbor, I’m sure I’d be hanging around at The Ark all the time,” he said.
This isn’t Mountain Heart’s first time at the Folk Festival, either. About a decade ago, they graced the stage in Ann Arbor, and they couldn’t be more excited to return.
“I remember the lineup then was just phenomenal,” Shilling said, “and this lineup with John Prine, Jason Isbell, Aimee Mann … all those folks. Everyone’s phenomenal. They really seem to get it right. I don’t think any artist would turn this down … Who wouldn’t want to be part of this?”
Tickets are selling out quickly for both Friday and Saturday nights of the Folk Festival, but Mountain Heart will be returning in April for those who will be missing the Folk Festival and still want to be swept away by the stories of the group.