SPRING LAKE — When Bill Monroe laid the foundation for his vision of bluegrass music in the late 1930s, he left room for plenty of musical diversity. Though his own roots were influenced by country, blues, Scottish folk and popular music of the day, he saw no reason for the music to stop there.
The members of Mountain Heart understand the ever-evolving dynamics of the bluegrass genre. In fact, they're not quite sure at times what to call the music they play, says fiddler Jim VanCleve.
"We don't bother trying to put a label on it," VanCleve said. "Stylistically, it's bluegrass, but it's become something larger than that — not just to us, but to our fans. We're proud of that."
The Nashville sextet, which performs Saturday at the Riverhawk Music Festival at the Sertoma Youth Ranch, has been tearing up concert and festival stages for more than a decade with its eclectic blend, which includes touches of blues, jazz, soul and rock. The group's highly touted performances have earned the band a fan base that seems to grow every year.
For VanCleve, seeing the same faces again and again is a sign that they must be doing something right.
"Our fans accept us for being who we are musically," he said. "That gives us a comfort zone that allows us to try a lot of things. When you have the audience behind you, it makes your job so much more fun."
Formed in 1999, Mountain Heart hit the music scene as a seasoned act of veterans. VanCleve and banjo player Barry Abernathy were former members of the legendary group Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver. Original mandolinist Adam Steffey spent several years playing with Alison Krauss. All of that made for an impressive musical calling card.
VanCleve admits that though the band's original focus was toward a contemporary style of bluegrass, everyone agreed they didn't want to sound like the myriad other groups that seemed to dwell on a formula.
"We didn't want to be a copy of any other band out there," he said. "We knew that to be viable we had to be very different."
That essentially came down to choosing strong material to perform. In addition to writing their own songs, members have collaborated with veteran songwriters. Over time, tunes such as I'm Just Here to Ride the Train, Heart Like a Roadsign and Mountain Man became some of the group's most treasured songs among fans.
Even after more than a decade together, VanCleve thinks the band's best days are still ahead. Mountain Heart recently released That Just Happened, a seven-song EP that was produced and marketed entirely by the band.
"It's an exciting project for us because we've always wanted more control over our music and the way it's presented," VanCleve said. "Right now, I think this is the right step for us."
Logan Neill can be reached at [email protected] or (352) 848-1435.