Living in a small town, everyone seems to know everyone else’s business. This means when someone gets the so-called “fifteen minutes of fame,” it’s a pretty big deal. The Mountain Faith Band, a bluegrass group from the Sylva area, has definitely surpassed those “fifteen minutes” since they made it to the semi-finals on “America’s Got Talent” this past year. They are quickly turning their passion for playing music into a full-time career. Just this month, they were nominated for Bluegrass Gospel Group of the Year at the Society for Preservation of Bluegrass Music Awards.
The band consists of Sam McMahan (bass); his daughter, Summer McMahan (fiddle, lead/harmony vocals); his son, Brayden McMahan (banjo, harmony vocals); Corey Piatt (mandolin); and David and Jimmy Meyer, two brothers who recently joined the band (various instruments). Member Luke Dotson recently decided to leave the band since he lives farther away and has a wife and family that need his attention.
While gathered in the warmth of their cozy living room, Summer, Brayden, Corey, David, and Jimmy spoke about how they got started playing music (Sam was at work at the family’s tire shop, High Country Tire in Sylva, where they all work when they’re not practicing and travelling). About 16 years ago, Summer and Brayden attended Mountain Heritage Day at Western Carolina University with their parents, where they saw the Fiddling Dill Sisters perform. That performance is what made them “fall in love with bluegrass,” Summer said. They ended up taking fiddle lessons from the Fiddling Dill Sisters, but Brayden eventually switched to the banjo. Jimmy and David mentioned that they started with classical music and were also part of a family band.
Before landing their spot on “America’s Got Talent,” Mountain Faith played small gigs, in bluegrass festivals, at Dollywood, and even on small-scale television shows, such as “Larry’s Country Diner.” The band never thought they would make it outside of the small town festival scene, much less perform for millions of people on live television, which was part of their experience on “America’s Got Talent.”
Looking back on the experience, the band repeatedly mentions how much waiting around took place, especially during the first couple rounds.
“There was so much anticipation,” the band said, “the wait was incredibly long, and then things would pick up, and then more waiting.”
As nerve-wracking as the constantly building anticipation was, so much time spent waiting allowed them to get pretty close with many of the other performers.
“We saw all these incredible musicians and talents, and it was really fun,” Brayden said. They have even stayed in touch with a few of the performers from the show, including the Regurgitator and Benton Blount.
When asked what actually performing on the show was like, the band exploded with excited answers.
“It was absolutely unreal,” Corey said.
According to Brayden, the excitement of performing in front of so many people surprisingly wasn’t as intimidating as he would have thought.
“The bigger the audience, the less nerve-wracking. Once you get going, it’s fine,” he said. Summer agreed with Brayden, but added that she “couldn’t think about the people watching on TV,” because the people in the audience were enough to think about on their own. They all agreed that the experience was surreal and that they never imagined that was where they would end up.
In fact, they didn’t even know that they had submitted anything to be able to audition. That, Brayden and Summer owe to their mother, who secretly submitted a music video to the show after hearing that the band had decided not to audition.
“We had a band meeting and talked about how to broaden our audience,” says Summer, “we thought about [the show] but then decided it was a horrible idea.”
Later on, they were on their way to a bluegrass festival when Summer noticed an email in her spam folder from the producers of the show; the band didn’t even know the video had been submitted. The producers wanted them in St. Louis in a few days to audition, and luckily they were already in the area. Things were starting to line up perfectly.
“We waited a month and a half, and hadn’t heard anything,” Summer said when talking about what happened after their first audition, “March 15, they called. I was out getting my nails done with my mom and at first I thought it was a telemarketer, then realized the call was coming from L.A.” The band had one day to get out to Los Angeles for the show, and flew out the very next morning.
Jumping from small-scale performances to big-time show biz in L.A., one would definitely expect a band’s dynamic to change rather quickly, and Mountain Faith’s experience was no different.
“Up until [then], it was just, stand there and sing and everyone listens, but now it’s all about entertainment, and there’s a lot more choreography,” Summer said. “It’s also insane how much publicity we got.”
Corey emphasized Summer’s mention of choreography. “We realized we need to over-exaggerate movements,” he said. “We would think we were doing so much on stage and would work up a sweat just to see that it looks like we’re barely moving,” He added that performing on the show was “definitely a learning experience.”
Corey went on to talk about how the sound of the band changed, as well. “Musically speaking, we had talked about moving to a more progressive sound, and the show helped push us in that direction.”
In regards to that change in sound, Mountain Faith performed quite a few bluegrass covers of popular songs while on the show, including “Shut Up and Dance,” “Counting Stars,” and “Can’t Feel My Face.” According to them, playing these popular songs was very much intentional.
“Most came out because they don’t want you to play originals on the show,” Brayden said.
“You have to play things that people know,” Summer said, especially on a show like “America’s Got Talent.”
But it’s more than just learning songs that people will recognize. “Bluegrass music has a lot of limitations to it, and we had to emulate the beat and style of those pop songs with the instrumentation that we had,” Corey said. “It was a unique challenge, but a great opportunity to learn, and for people to remember us.”
When asked what motivates them to keep going with the band and with music, the band members all smiled at each other, making their love for each other and their band very evident.
“We want to make a career out of playing music, we’re just so passionate about it,” Summer said. “There’s nothing more exciting to us then getting up on stage and having a good time, and what keeps us motivated is knowing that what we’re doing now will take us farther.” Corey jumped in, adding, “I get inspired playing with these people, this band. What more could you ask for?”
The band attributes their successes to their faith and their fans. Brayden spoke about their God-given talents. “Without that, it wouldn’t happen, and in a sense we’re getting rewarded,” he said.
Summer made sure to mention all of their loyal fans. “We appreciate everyone who listens and count everyone as friends, we are just so thankful for them,” she said.
Mountain Faith’s intense passion keeps them pushing to do more, to be better, and they have some great advice for aspiring musicians. “Keep it up. If you like what you do, you won’t work a day in your life. I know it sounds cheesy, but it’s true,” says Corey.
David talks about how “performing makes the work worth it” and Brayden reiterates that saying, “What would I be doing now if I wasn’t playing music? I wanted to quit so bad at times, but you have to keep going. It’s cliché, but don’t quit. You never know when it’s going to be so worth it; I mean, it came out of nowhere for us.”
Summer explained how there were a lot of times she also wanted to quit.
“I was so exhausted and burnt out, but my dad would tell me to really think about that decision. I would wait an extra week and a door would open. So just keep trucking. This is something I can do for the rest of my life,” she said. She then added how important it is to “take risks,” saying, “We really stuck our necks out there and risked a lot, but it was totally worth it.”
The band is getting ready to head out to Franklin to practice at the performing arts center where they will have a show next month, and this is nowhere near the extent of their performing goals this year. They have other shows planned where they will get to play in some new states and also talk about their interest in doing military tours, something they all really enjoy taking part in.
Long-term, the band has some big, but certainly not unrealistic, goals, including being nominated for a Grammy, getting sponsorships, being an opening act for a big-time artist, and then eventually being the headliner at a sold out arena. They can all agree that they want this to be their “long-term career” and will go wherever the Lord takes them.
Corey looked at his band mates, saying, “Whatever the Lord has for us, we’ll just have to wait and see.”