[Interview] Rooster Walk Nine: Mountain Heart + Erin & The Wildfire

"It's my favorite festival all year"  

"I've never met more incredible people than those who run Rooster Walk, and look around, it's just so beautiful" 

"They moved the festival location a few years ago and people were upset at first but it was the right choice. Every year they do things to improve this or that, and it always works, the weekend just keeps getting better" 

These are real life conversations heard throughout the weekend. (Read our full review here)

I was excited to sit down with Mountain Heart, who performed various sets throughout the weekend and were the host for this year's Jammy Jam. I also managed to chat with Erin & The Wildfire to get their perspective of the festival. 

Squeezing into the bus seven deep, Mountain Heart is composed of lead singer Josh Shilling, Aaron Ramsey, Seth Taylor, Jeff Partin, and Molly Cherryholmes. The band has been Grammy, ACM, and CMA nominated, and IBMA (International Bluegrass Music Association) winners with appearances on the Grand Ole Opry 130+ times. It was like sitting around with a group of old friends.

Watching collaborations that don't normally happen go on stage, one time only deals, are usually everyone's favorite part of a festival weekend, like here tonight with you guys hosting the Jammy Jam, is this something you orchestrated?

The Poke Around has a super cool article about why @roosterwalk 9 was amazing. Check it out >> link in bio 😏

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Josh: It's something the promoters talked to me about doing and I'm from here (Martinsville, VA) originally so anything we can do to give back to the community or bring people in, and give them an opportunity to play we want to do. I know we have some really young guys here this year (Shadowgrass), and then we have the star types that are here too, and it's basically just an open invitation to get up and jam with us and have a good time.

It's super informal, I was actually just texting about it before you guys got here. I set a goal today to not play the same song more than once, and we have five hours worth of music to play with all of the shows we are scheduled to play. So I sent something like 100 songs for everyone to chose from to keep from being repetitive. Everyone is just talking back and forth about what we are gonna play.

We host these types of things sometimes, but we are often the band called in to sit in and play, like at Merlefest for example. You show up to play and end up just having two or three bands jump up on stage and start raging together. We've gotten to play with Tony Rice, Jerry Douglas, Sam Bush, it happens a lot at festivals and unless we absolutely have to leave, we try to stick around and be part of these types of things because they may never happen again.

What is it like for you guys to get on stage with people you've never met? 

Josh: It's usually once they are of that caliber, it's an immediate chemistry.

Aaron: It's a trust thing.

Josh: Yeah, like you can look at Jerry Douglas and know he's gonna be able to do it, there's zero question of being able to do it, I mean the other guy may have a question about us but (laughs) usually it's a music language, you could have someone blind and it could totally be a feel thing. And there are ways to lead someone through a song with the chords when they don't even know it. Seth's played two sets with me this weekend and he didn't know any of the music but I can lead him to a four-chord by putting a flat-seven-piece of tension or back to a one with a sharp five like even if you don't know it or aren't paying attention you can tell something is happening, maybe someone is going up in the song or transitioning back down, and once you're players like these guys it's a language, you don't even have to look at each other. It's special.

Do you share influences?

Aaron: Some. I think the closest thing Josh and I shared because he comes from an R&B background, I come from bluegrass, but when we were kids we listened to this band Blue Highway and they wrote a lot of original songs, it was a bluegrass band but a progressive bluegrass band. Alison Krauss is another influence. The Allman Brothers for sure.

Josh: I guess the trend is bluegrass but I was always drawn to the piano, always played a little guitar. It's interesting just how diverse we are. We have guys that dig real deep into jazz, way deep into blues, R&B, Seth is always listening to something I've never heard of and introducing us to stuff because he listens to everything.(laughs) And we all play multiple instruments, three, four, some of us five different instruments, so when we go in to lay a record we can point a lead on one song, you on the mandolin, you on guitar, and then change positions and switch booths, you on accordion, you on bass, and just keep going. We can usually lay a record in one or two takes together. 

You guys do a really good job focusing on each individual's talent and careers, what are you focused on right now? 

Josh: All of that. Every bit of it.

Oh, so you don't sleep? Cool!

Josh: (laughs) Not really, no. We are all working on solo projects two or three of us anyway, and we are always writing. We wrote our first band song ever, and the four of us, Molly couldn't come, but we took a day and got together and messed around and wrote a song and it turned out really really cool. We were excited to finally write one down together. 

Molly has a solo record, Aaron is three years deep working on one, I'm working on one, we all work individually on stuff all the time, but as a band we are gonna try to get 11-15 tracks on the next album, I think we are somewhere around eight or nine, so we are still writing. I think the goal is, drop an album in late September, let the holidays pass, and then start press and touring. We are apart all the time, it's rare when we all get together, but when we do it's just right back in the driver seat and good to go.

And if we get individual gigs and they have requests for other people to join, you need a mandolin I'm calling Aaron, you need a guitar I'm calling Seth, you need a violinist I'm calling Molly. We always call each other first if that happens and its great if it works out because we can read each other's charts and hang out, and stay up too late, and probably drink too much beer, but we love it. We love being a band.

How do you balance family and music?  

Josh: It's tough on everyone really, but we do our best, you just gotta balance it. Being on tour is usually a blast, but it can be like one minute you're playing the main stage at Merlefest or Rooster Walk and be thinking you're the greatest, and then the next day you might get a flat tire, break your guitar, and just suck and it gets you down, you have to figure out how to stay in the middle or you go off the charts. Keep in touch with your family who supports you and will pick you back up, and celebrate with you too. Luckily for these guys, nobody has kids, but they have super supportive families, who join when they can on tour. When we are home, we all have home studios, so that's nice.

Aaron: Music is hard work, but if it's what you wanna do you're gonna do it and make it work.

Josh: As tough as it can be sometimes, there are days like today where you look around like right now, sitting in the A/C, drinking a beer, and waiting to play and you think, yeah this is terrible. (laughing) No, you realize how lucky you are. There are people working in the ER seeing God awful things and then there's us getting to do what we love to do. I see my friends in passing sometimes and you know you check in, "Hey man how are things? You still at the bank?" And they will respond, "Yeah still doing the 9-5" and I just can't imagine it. We are so lucky to get to live this life and do what we do.

Bullet Music loves what you're doing to Mountain Heart, keep killing it!

Sliding backstage after the set Erin & The Wildfire quickly loaded gear and greeted us. The band is composed of Erin Lunsford, Ryan Lipps, Nick Quillen, and Matt Wood. When they finished up their set, Erin walked over to the fence and spoke with fans, shaking hands and handing out stickers. It's fulfilling to catch moments where fans get a chance to pay their respect and artists can reciprocate.

I know you play a lot of shows and festivals, what keeps you coming back and do you have any favorites? 

Erin: Some of our favorite festivals so far have been; Rooster Walk, it's not too big, it has the best vibe, and it's beautiful. Another is FloydFest, we absolutely love playing there! We are playing Front Porch Fest this year and are excited about that. Places we want to play, Lockn again, we played once in 2014 after winning a battle of the bands, they haven't had us back yet but I'm gonna keep emailing them until they let us back in. We'd love to play at Coachella, Glastonbury, and Bonnaroo,

Quillen: It's my dream now to play Red Rocks, it is so beautiful.

You guys are from Charlottesville, VA. An area working hard to build its music scene. What other cities are you impressed by?

Erin: We love Richmond, VA. We've grown a little following there and always have a great time doing shows.

Lipps: Asheville has a great scene, maybe it seems like an obvious answer, but we really want to go play there soon and are looking forward to it happening. 

I was stalking your Instagram because that's who I am and what I do....

Quillen: Is it really stalking though?? That's why we put it up there, we want you to look at it. Please look at our stuff! (laughs)

And I saw you recently did Mockstars and went in as Katy Perry. I have to ask, was everyone on board?

Erin: What's funny is everyone thinks we did Katy Perry because of me but it was actually him (points to Lipps).

Lipps: Yeah I'm obsessed. 

What's your favorite Katy Perry song?

Lipps: Ohhhhh, that's a tough one, I love them all.

Quillen: Mine's E.T.  

Lipps: Yeah I dunno, all of them, any of them.

Quillen: The year before we did No Doubt and it was actually his idea too.

Oh, so you're the cultivator of everything?

Lipps: Yeah I have good ideas, it's just executing on them that can be the thing. Pop music is fascinating to me. People keep making the same stuff, the same kinds of songs, but yet it still sounds different and it's still fun. I feel like it was a great exercise to see what all goes into it and take away what we could learn and figure out how to apply it to us. 

Wood: I didn't want to do it really at first, but once I was in an entire costume, that was pretty cool and I dunno by that point you just feel different and are really committed to it. It ended up being a lot of fun. Teenage Dream is the best Katy Perry song, end of story.

How did you guys meet?

Quillen: Tinder (laughs)

Erin: I wish that was the answer but we met at UVA, we were in a student recording group together. I was the President, and I was like I want you in my band, and you in my band. Ryan wasn't originally in the band but our other guy quit and we were really fortunate to find him and get him on board. The horn players that have joined us came on about a year ago, the lineup has changed a little bit. 

Quillen: It was a good choice.

The last one and we will let you go, what's your next move, what are you guys doing this year?

Erin: Good question and great timing. We were just in the studio to record our first full album, it'll be out at the end of the summer and we will start touring for it in the fall. I'm so excited. We played everything, well I think almost everything, just now in our set. 

Quillen: And it sounds even better on the record.

It can sound better, that's crazy because it sounded amazing just now.

Erin: Awww, thank you!! We are really proud of it, be on the lookout this summer and for a bunch of show dates to follow!

Photos By Ashley Acker For Bullet Music

Jen Fralin

Charlotte, NC lead journalist with a passion for live music and festival experiences. If I'm not dancing around in a crowd, I'm posted up at a table with friends, enjoying local food and boozy drinks. Proficient in the use of one-liners, awkward encounters and interactions are my super power, binges of bad tv and cookie dough ice cream my guilty pleasure.

Instagram: @mylifeasjen_