en years ago, Mountain Heart opened up a concert at the Taft Theatre for recently deceased Country Music Hall of Famer, George Jones. To Jones’ credit, his love of Bluegrass music allowed for such bands to be a part of his show. But, due to the legend’s well-oiled touring machine, Mountain Heart only got 20 minutes to impress the crowd.
Now, Mountain Heart returns to the Taft Ballroom as headliners, ready to blow the roof off the sucka.
A lot has happened to Mountain Heart over the last decade, as personnel changes have led the band into a more progressive direction. The group has blended their open-minded brand of Bluegrass music with everything from Blues to Country to Rock, and that has led to more than 120 appearances at the Grand Ole Opry and gigs at blatantly edgier events, such as the Appalachian Uprising festival.
Tragedy nearly struck Mountain Heart two months ago, however. This past March, the band made their annual trip to perform on the Caribbean island of St. Croix. While there, fiddler, producer and original member of the group Jim Van Cleve was on the wrong end of a mosquito bite from hell. About five days later, the symptoms of dengue fever began to appear. The regular version of dengue fever is bad enough, but is very treatable. Van Cleve caught a more rare version of the disease that is often fatal — dengue hemorrhagic fever.
Doctors nowadays dread the all-too-common self-diagnosis that people do while surfing the Internet. In this case, however, the symptoms were lining up like a Ringling Brothers elephant walk and Van Cleve found himself in a hospital room fighting for his life.
“I got back home on a Tuesday night and the following Sunday I was at church and I remember not feeling very well while we were sitting there,” Van Cleve says. “We went out to lunch after that and I started feeling progressively worse and worse and my wife said, ‘You don’t look so good. Are you feeling ok?’ I remember telling her that I felt like somebody had a drill and was drilling some holes behind my eyes through my temples. It hurt so bad. My temperature was about 99 degrees that night and I felt worse the next day. So, I figured I was coming down with the flu.”
Van Cleve’s temperature soon reached the 104 and 105 range. But he tried to ride it out, still not knowing what had hit him. Then, two days later, his body broke out in sunburn-like hives. Eventually, it dawned on him that right before he left the island, he heard a conversation about a disease that recently infected one of the people in the discussion — dengue fever. Van Cleve found a description of dengue fever on the Center for Disease Control’s website, along with the sidebar about a small percentage of those infected getting the more-deadly hemorrhagic version. Some of the phrases on the webpage include, “There are not yet any vaccines to prevent infection,” and, “There is no specific medication for treatment of a dengue infection.”
Van Cleve’s blood vessels began to weaken internally and his organs began to shut down as his body went into shock. His temperature dropped from 106 to 96 when his body quit fighting the disease, and they took him straight to the hospital.
“They hooked me up and, you name it, they had it running through my IVs,” Van Cleve says. “They did not tell me anything about the severity of my situation, they were just treating me. Everybody was real calm and comforting. I was in the hospital for four days. A week later, when we went back for a checkup because my liver was still not where it needed to be, the lady started reading my test results back and she said, ‘When you got here, we didn’t know if we’d be able to save you. You were near death.’ My kidneys were in failure and my liver was in failure and I was bleeding internally.”
The good news is that Van Cleve has gradually bounced back and says he is about 85 percent back to normal, which is good enough to resume his role as fiddler supreme of Mountain Heart.
The other two charter members of Mountain Heart include Barry Abernathy on banjo and Jason Moore on bass. The additions to the band over time have given the group some momentum. Josh Shilling is a songwriter, guitarist and piano player who brings a strong Blues and Southern Rock bent. Because of that, Mountain Heart’s Newgrass versions of Allman Brothers Band songs have become fan favorites, as have Shilling’s original compositions.
In his second year with the group is 19-year-old guitar phenom Seth Taylor. Rounding out the lineup is 28-year-old whiz Aaron Ramsey, who plays mandolin and Dobro, as well as many other instruments. Several years ago, Mountain Heart did some shows with the legendary Tony Rice. A year or two later, the award-winning guitarist mentioned Ramsey by name in his autobiography, Still Inside: The Tony Rice Story, describing his playing as “off the scales.”
Mountain Heart is a band that works hard to entertain, with the focus put on bringing high energy to the stage and working as a team, with every excellent musician getting their shot in the limelight. They just killed at the recent MerleFest music festival; that should be twice as true when the headline the historic Taft Ballroom next week.
“This version of the band we have here gels,” Van Cleve says. “Most versions of the band (have) had something kick-tail about it. But this version is definitely one of my favorites because everybody is comfortable and we’re more capable of going in different directions. Dynamically, we are much more diversified. We’re stretching out in ways that we haven’t been willing to do in the past. Earlier, we might have felt like we needed to get our flag placed firmly in the ground enough to be able to be allowed to do some of the things we’re doing now.”
MOUNTAIN HEART performs May 30 at the Ballroom at the Taft Theatre. More info: tafttheatre.org.