IF YOU GO
■ What: Scenic City Roots Live featuring Mountain Heart, Billie in the Woods, Sarah Potenza, The Dirt Daubers, John Oates and Jim Lauderdale.
■ When: 7 p.m. today, April 3.
■ Where: Track 29, 1400 Market St.
■ Admission: $10, $5 students.
■ Phone: 423-521-2929.
■ Website: www.track29.co.
1999: “Mountain Heart”
2001: “The Journey”
2002: “No Other Way”
2004: “Force of Nature”
2006: “Wide Open”
2007: “The Road That Never Ends”
2010: "That Just Happened”
For bluegrass and country music artists, the stage of the Grand Ole Opry is hallowed ground. It’s like Mecca. The Western Wall.
They visit it and dream of standing in its lights. Some spend their entire careers waiting for a chance to tread its boards.
Barry Abernathy waited less than a year.
“The first time I went to the Opry, I played on it. Most of the guys are that way,” says Abernathy, the banjo player and co-founder of progressive acoustic group Mountain Heart.
That was 1999, the same year Abernathy and bandmates Steve Gulley (vocals) and Jim Van Cleve (fiddle) left Doyle Lawson’s band, Quicksilver, to form their own group. Since then, Mountain Heart has stood on the Opry stage more than 130 times.
In a career that Abernathy describes as full of “lots of pinnacles, almost too many to mention,” many of the high points have been at the Opry.
The second or third time they played — Abernathy can’t be sure which it was — Vince Gill called. He’d heard them on the radio on the way into Nashville to play the Opry and wanted to know if they’d back him up.
“I said, ‘Let me think about it. Yes,’” Abernathy says, laughing. “That was a highlight of Mountain Heart’s career.”
Tonight, April 3, the band will trade the Opry’s barn-door backdrop for the movable stage at Track 29 as one of the highlighted acts for this month’s Scenic City Roots Live. They’ll play a 20-minute set as part of a bill including Kentucky roots trio The Dirt Daubers, Songwriter Hall of Fame inductee John Oates (of Hall & Oates) and Grammy Award-winning songwriter Jim Lauderdale.
Although they have never identified themselves as being purely bluegrass, much less straight-ahead traditionalists, Mountain Heart has created a name for itself as a boundary-pushing band. Its shows feature fiery instrumentals sitting cheek and jowl with a cappella gospel songs and covers of Allman Brothers songs.
As a result of that diversity, they’ve dodged genre pigeonholing and have shared the stage with everyone from Lynyrd Skynyrd and Alison Krauss to Punch Brothers and Levon Helms. They have, on numerous occasions, shared the stage with Grammy Award-winning flatpicking guitar legend Tony Rice.
In the last 15 years, Mountain Heart established itself as a bit of a rebel in the bluegrass world, but Abernathy says there’s not an act of open rebellion against categorization but a willingness to let his band members play to their strengths.
“When you go outside of bluegrass and look at other genres, they think we’re bluegrass. Some of the old traditional festival people think that we’re rock ’n’ roll,” he says, laughing. “If it’s good music, it’s good music, and it doesn’t matter to me what you call it.”
Contact Casey Phillips at cphillips@timesfree press.com or 423-757-6205.
Casey Phillips has worked as a features reporter in the Life department since May 2007. He writes about entertainment, consumer technology, animals and news of the weird. Casey hails from Knoxville and earned a bachelor of science degree in journalism and a bachelor of arts in German from Middle Tennessee State University, where he worked as the features editor for the student newspaper, Sidelines. Casey's writing has earned numerous accolades, including first and second place ...