“It’s half heritage, half cutting edge,” said banjoist Joey Fortner. “It’s the culmination of the modern Appalachian mountains meeting the mountains of the old days. This area is the greatest place on Earth, and this music is deeply rooted in its history.”
Alongside Fortner is Caleb Burress (vocals/acoustic guitar), Chance Kuehn (electric guitar/mandolin), Jeff Mendenhall (fiddle), Rick Shore (drums) and Zack Edwards (bass). Each member is a resident of Haywood County, each as passionate and determined to spread the serene sounds of a landscape that mesmerizes its inhabitants.
The ensemble will be making its public debut at 7 p.m. Saturday, May 18, at Frog Level Brewing Company in Waynesville. The performance is free and open to the public.
“Our music is real. It’s a machine and it’s well-oiled right now,” Fortner said. “This is the greatest group of musicians I’ve ever played with. We’re all focused. The musical roots are deep in these parts and we’re one part of this big wheel of Appalachian music.”
At the center of the group is Burress, 29, a well-known singer in the regional music scene. He has the look and swagger of someone destined for greatness, a notion that seems closer and closer as the years wear on. His ancestors have been in Western North Carolina for generations. He aims to bridge the connection between his ancestors and himself through the vocals he pushes through the microphone.
This year is shaping up to be a cornerstone time for Burress. Besides the recent formation of the band last summer, he’s also marrying his longtime girlfriend and landed a spot as a character on the Discovery Channel reality show “Hillbilly Blood.” The show’s hosts are two survivalist experts from Western North Carolina who encounter trials and tribulations, as well as other local people, throughout each episode.
Besides Burress appearing on the show with his father as blacksmiths, Soldier’s Heart was also filmed performing at a party held for the show. The sextet also provides the music for the Haywood County Tourism Development Authority’s latest marketing video.
For Soldier’s Heart, the journey is long and bountiful, and there’s still plenty more to do before all is said and done.
Smoky Mountain News: How did Soldier’s Heart come about?
Caleb Burress: Joey and myself have known each other for 15 years and hadn’t really done anything together. Soon, we noticed we had similar musical tastes and decided to get together on the porch and see what we could do. That was a year ago. It really kind of just fell together and has congealed ever since then.
SMN: How would you describe the sound?
CB: We want to make music that sounds the way your grandmother’s cooking tastes, comfort music, something that is comfortable and embracing.
SMN: Where does the name come from?
CB: Soldier’s Heart is an Antebellum (Civil War era) term for posttraumatic stress disorder or shell shock. It’s a tender way to talk about something awful. It kind of ties us to the past, and we are aware of our roots. It’s love and war, happy and sad, melancholic. The last shot fired in the war of Southern independence was shot in this area (Sulphur Springs in Waynesville). My dad still has my great-great-grandfather’s drum he beat for the 62nd North Carolina. He was captured at Cumberland Gap, spent two years at a prison camp on the south side of Chicago, came back, cut both sides of the drum, nailed some tin to it and made it a grain measurer. The hoop is still up at my father’s house.
SMN: Why is this project different from past musical endeavors of yours?
CB: I’ve got some older songs I’ve written from other projects that I feel are better represented in this project. It’s more about how the song feels and the mood it creates, and that’s really at the center of all of this. It shows a lot more of those roots. Instead of just playing rock ‘n roll music, why don’t we play something that’s more true to this area? Everybody thinks of this area as bluegrass, but it’s part of the equation and not all of it.
SMN: The band was asked to perform for “Hillbilly Blood.” What was that experience like?
CB: I was worn out. I was a character on the show, picked up a week of work as a member of the build crew, and then we did the band thing for one of the episodes. We had to play the two songs for the party for half an hour, just kept playing them. I think the experience will open up some doors for us, and the fact the show will air after we’ve played some shows live. It’ll definitely be a feather in our cap.
SMN: Thoughts on your debut at Frog Level Brewing?
CB: We’ve been working hard for a year. A lot of people are excited about it. We’re excited about it. We’re ready to get this out there and drive it around a little bit.