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Climbing the Mountain: Following ‘America’s Got Talent’ appearance, Mountain Faith looks to the future

art frStanding behind the counter of High Country Tire, Summer McMahan is a long way from the bright lights of New York City.

Outside the shop and convenience store, cars zip and zoom by nonstop down U.S. 441, either coming from Dillsboro to the north or Franklin to the south. And though the 22-year-old is busy ringing up purchases or talking up the locals who make a stop to High Country as part of their daily routine, McMahan thoughts keep drifting back to the Big Apple, back to Radio City Music Hall where she recently took the stage to perform on the NBC hit show “America’s Got Talent.”

“It all went by so fast, but we’re all definitely glad to be back in the mountains, back in the swing of things,” she said. 

“All” is in reference to Mountain Faith, the family bluegrass band McMahan (lead singer/fiddle), her father (Sam, bassist), brother (Brayden, banjoist) and close friends Luke Dotson (guitar) and Cory Piatt (mandolin) are part of. In their 15 years together, the Jackson County group has crisscrossed the greater Southeast and beyond, taking the stage several nights a week — every week — all in an effort to make their dream of becoming a sustainable, viable touring act a reality. And now with their four appearances on AGT (before being eliminated in the semifinals earlier this month), Summer and Co. are taking their exposure to countless viewers and perpetuating it into a lifelong career.

“We play bluegrass we because we love it so much. We fell in love with it 15 years ago, and to think that we put bluegrass in 13 million households with AGT is so incredible,” she said. “We’ve had so much positive feedback from all of this. All these people who perhaps didn’t like bluegrass before are now coming up to us and saying how much they love it because of the show. It’s just an honor for us because we love playing this music.”

A few yards away, darting in and out of the large garage doors, Sam is meandering around stacks of tires and numerous customers who rely on the company for their vehicular needs. He stops and talks with each person, making sure they’ve been helped. He’s adorned in jeans and a plaid shirt, a far cry from his trademark suit and tie when onstage. 

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“Well, when I’m here, I always miss the performing part. I can’t lie and say I don’t, because I do, but I also enjoy being here at High Country,” he modestly said. “The response from the television show has just been overwhelming. What’s been really interesting is seeing all these folks coming into the shop now from Virginia, Florida, Louisiana, and elsewhere, all wanting to see if we really all just go back to work at the tire shop after performing — they just can’t believe it.”

Though it’s only Monday afternoon, the McMahans have been hard at work at the shop since 5 a.m. They’ll be there until 6 p.m., only to head to band practice until 10 p.m. and do it all over again at the shop the following morning. That past weekend they’d played a handful of shows around the Southeast, with the last being in Mississippi, which led to an overnight drive back to High Country to flip the closed sign around on the storefront.

“We’re sleeping well at night, I can promise you that,” Sam chuckled. “For the kids, I want playing music to be a career for them, and that’s what they want, too. We’ve been doing this for 15 years, with 10 to 12 hours a day at the shop, running the roads to performances every weekend. All this hard work is putting them in a position to do just that. I couldn’t be prouder to be part of it, and to be their dad.”

After their sendoff from AGT came the latest, and possibly greatest, pieces of news for Mountain Faith. On top of being nominated for “Emerging Artist of the Year” by the International Bluegrass Music Association, the ensemble also learned their song “Feelin’ Blue” hit number one on the bluegrass charts. They’ve also been invited to perform overseas in Dubai in November for the troops. It’s been a wild ride, to say the least, but, for Mountain Faith, it’s the culmination of years of dedication and perseverance to not only hone their craft, but to also promote a beloved genre of music.

“We have to get a younger audience listening to all of us to ensure the survival of bluegrass,” Sam said. “And you have our band playing some of these pop songs, with bluegrass instruments and a bluegrass style. It catches the attention of the younger kids because they know those songs, and now they’re seeing and hearing them played by bluegrass musicians.”

And at the center of this whirlwind is Summer. The focal point of Mountain Faith, she’s finding her footing on this new platform the band has found themselves atop, where eyes and ears from around the world are paying attention to what they have to say. 

Stepping outside the shop, Summer sits down at a nearby picnic table. Bluebird skies overhead, with just the slightest signal in the air that fall is just around the corner, she lights up when asked about AGT and the current state of the band. She’s captivating in conversation, where her natural beauty and charm shines. With her unassuming tone and Smoky Mountain Mustangs T-shirt (a local high school), there’s an “aw, shucks” nature to Summer, where one notices just how young she is. But, there’s also a strong will, persistence and maturity about her, too, where you also see just how far she’s come in her musical pursuits since the age of 7.

Smoky Mountain News: Is it surreal to be back home, as if “America’s Got Talent” was some dream that wasn’t real?

Summer McMahan: Yeah, definitely. The funny thing is it didn’t feel real to us. The first two appearances we’re pre-taped, and you’re in the moment and it’s unreal when you wake up the next day. You know, we’ve been working on this since January. Our initial audition was in January, so we’ve been working on it for almost a year. And the whole thing was only four episodes — it all went by so fast. There’s a lot of people in the background and production, a lot of running around, and it’s really stressful because your life is depending on your performance.

SMN: Has your confidence level changed since being on national television at Radio City Music Hall?

SM: Confidence is definitely something we’ve always struggled with. But with AGT, we’d rehearsed those songs probably thousands of times. We knew them in and out like the back of our hand, so we were more confident in that. We’re having a four-hour practice tonight to play through our set a few times to feel comfortable.

SMN: And that’s after a full day of work here and shows on the road all weekend.

SM: My dad has one of the greatest work ethics of anyone I’ve ever seen in my entire life. From the time we were kids, he made us know that you’re not going to get anywhere without working very, very hard. That work ethic transitioned into music a long time ago. And more so now, because in the younger years it was more of a hobby, where today it’s a career choice — it’s what we want to do with our lives. We put as much work into the music as we do into the shop.

SMN: You were on AGT, have a number one song on the bluegrass charts right now, and are nominated for an IBMA award. Is this a whirlwind for you, or it is the natural progression of all your years working on making the band better?

SM: Well, it kind of feels like both. This year has definitely been a whirlwind. And yet, we’ve also put 15 really long and hard years into this. We’ve had several different band changes over the years. With this band, dad and I sat down in January, and said if this band lineup didn’t make it, it’ll never workout. We all get along and play together so well. We figured if it didn’t work this year, we might as well quit and move on with our lives. Two weeks later to that day we got the call from AGT. So, we do the AGT thing, and one day after we get voted off the show we find out we have a number one song on the bluegrass charts. Our four goals at the beginning of the year were to broaden our audience, get a number one song, get an IBMA nomination, and play the Grand Ole Opry. We made all these goals, and in the back of my head I’m thinking if we just get one of these to happen I’ll be happy. Now we have three out of four, with sights on the Grand Ole Opry next. 

SMN: Bluegrass is second nature to us here in Southern Appalachia, but it seemed on the show some of the judges, namely Howard Stern, and the audience looked at you in surprise that people still played instruments and harmonized without the aid of modern technology.

SM: Going into AGT that was our biggest concern, because bluegrass isn’t in the mainstream right now, and Howard’s comments definitely made us more nervous. A lot of people say, “Oh, I don’t like bluegrass,” and you show it to them, and they’re surprised at how much they like it. A lot of people just haven’t given it a chance. It’s a physically demanding music, there’s so much going on. All of these different riffs and rhythms going on at once, and it all comes together. And in that first audition, the judges seemed in shock because it was something they weren’t expecting.

SMN: And with being in the spotlight, expectations shift — for you, the band and from the audience.

SM: I’m dealing with it as best as I can. I never really got nervous before, but with the bigger shows, and a lot of people coming because of AGT, I get nervous because I want people to like our live show like they did on AGT. And in order to do that, I’m putting in more effort. Even though we’ve given our all every show, we now have to go above and beyond that. With AGT, “American Idol,” and shows like that, you basically have a month after the show goes off, and after that, if you don’t put your name out there in front of people, they’ll forget about you. And that’s what we’re doing for the next couple months, which is playing in front of as many people as possible so they won’t forget about us.

SMN: Do you notice any change in the live shows?

SM: The shows have changed so much. This last weekend in Mississippi, I don’t know for sure, but I’m pretty confident that if we’d gone to this place last year, we’d have had a normal sized crowd. But since AGT, the crowds have gotten a lot bigger. So, this past Saturday, while we were in this church in Mississippi, the pews filled up, then they brought out all these chairs and they filled up, then they opened the church doors and people were listening from outside. I almost cried, because that’s my dream — to play and to have people love it. 

Editor’s Note: Mountain Faith’s newest album, “That Which Matters,” will be released in the coming weeks. They will have a track-by-track world premier on Monday, Sept. 21 on the “Bluegrass Junction” channel on Sirius XM radio.

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