In tracing the trajectory of modern music, one can find numerous examples of artists that belonged to a band while also simultaneously maintaining a successful solo career. Josh Shilling has parlayed his professional life in much the same way. An integral part of the bluegrass band Mountain Heart, he also makes a habit of performing solo shows between his obligations to the band. When he plays at The Station in Blount County this Saturday, he’ll focus on his own music and bring with him two notable colleagues, WDVX-FM’s Lewell Molen, also a guitarist for the Lorrie Morgan Band, and Larry Patton of the Flying Burrito Brothers, as solid support.
“I’ve always played solo shows around the Mountain Heart tours,” Shilling said. “It really allows us band guys to stretch out and not get totally burnt out touring exclusively with one band. I usually play solo about as much as I work with Mountain Heart each year. Some of those dates are at festivals where I’m hired as artist-at-large, which means I’m booked for the duration of the festival to basically collaborate with all the artists there. Other shows are like what we have coming up at The Station.”
Nevertheless, Shilling said that at times it can be a challenge to juggle two careers. As a chief songwriter and singer, guitarist, keyboard player and de facto front man for Mountain Heart, he often find himself divvying up his material between the band and his own individual efforts.
“That is a balancing act for sure,” he said.
“Usually it’s much harder to write songs that fit Mountain Heart, because there are so many cool elements to the band that need to be satisfied. The music has to be interesting, but the grooves generally will be slightly different than a song I might be writing for myself.
“There are multiple singers and insane pickers in Mountain Heart, so I have to keep all that in mind while crafting a song. All that said, at the end of the day, a really great song will stand up in any scenario. I feel so lucky to have multiple outlets for all the crazy ideas in my head.”
Shilling has a new solo album, aptly titled “Letting Go,” that he’s readying for release, but he’s already looking toward recording another effort under his own auspices within the next year.
“At that point I’d love to tour that project with a band of my own,” he said. “I think a couple of the other guys are also currently working on side projects, but this would never stop Mountain Heart from touring. There’s simply no other group of musicians like Mountain Heart, and we all look forward to every show and every record these days.”
In truth, Shilling joined Mountain Heart at a particularly auspicious time in the band’s trajectory. They already were a well-established group when the band’s sound engineer passed on some of the demos he and Shilling had made at a studio located near Shilling’s hometown of Roanoke, Virginia. After checking out one of his solo shows, the group eventually contacted him and asked if he was interested in joining.
“They were wanting to reach beyond the traditional bluegrass bounds a bit with the band’s sound and vocal style,” Shilling said of the eventual union. “We met one evening, jammed for a couple of hours, and miraculously, a few weeks later, I played my first gig singing lead with the band at the Ryman Auditorium on the Grand Ole Opry. Thankfully, we received a standing ovation that night with one of my original songs, so we really just hit the ground running!”
Still, Shilling said he found it daunting to adapt.
“I was primarily a piano player that had always had a drummer on stage,” he said. “It was a totally different world for me holding a guitar and leaning almost exclusively on the mandolin making the rhythm. Mountain Heart has always had an unbelievable rhythm section, so it was scary trying to keep up with them on guitar, which is my second instrument. It was also tough learning all that material so fast and acclimating to playing the guitar without a drummer.
”We also recorded a live album within a few months of me joining. It literally makes me laugh to think about us jumping into that process head first just a few months after my first gig. I ended up being a writer on all of the new original songs featured on that album, two of which eventually became No. 1 songs.”
While Shilling admits that being the center of attention during his solo shows can be a bit intimidating at times, he said that it’s not necessarily a difficult transition from his role with the band.
“I’m used to doing most of the talking and introductions in both scenarios, so that doesn’t bother me,” he said. “I do love playing with other musicians though. Sometimes it gets a little lonely on stage when it’s just me. I expect to jam with Lewell, Larry, and hopefully some other friends at The Station. They won’t let me get too lonely or nervous.”
Likewise, he has no shortage of material to draw on, including several of his contributions to other artists. They include “I Made It,” the title track of the most recent Diamond Rio album, a song from Sierra Hull’s Grammy-nominated album, “Weighted Mind,” a pair of tracks he contributed to The Infamous Stringdusters’ Grammy-winning effort “Laws of Gravity,” and a song featured on the Grammy-winning debut by The Travelin’ McCourys.
“I really love the storytelling and intimate element of these shows,” Shilling said. “There are so many special songs that I can play solo that we never do in the band.”