By Kim Barto Meeks
Henry County honored a native son with his own holiday, naming September 7 “Josh Shilling Day” in a surprise presentation during a local music and beer festival.
Josh Shilling, who grew up in Bassett, found success in Nashville as a Grammy-winning songwriter and musician. He has fronted Americana band Mountain Heart since 2007, and shared the stage and studio with some of the music world’s greatest artists. Never forgetting his roots, however, Shilling still comes home to perform at least once a year.
That was the case on Saturday evening, when Mountain Heart headlined the fifth annual Brewster Walk Craft Beer Festival & Concerts in uptown Martinsville. The band had just started playing their second song, when Shilling’s bandmates abruptly stopped. Thinking something was wrong, Shilling turned to see Henry County Administrator Tim Hall and one of the festival organizers, Johnny Buck, walking onstage.
“Okay, now I’m scared,” Shilling quipped into the microphone.
Hall was holding a plaque – a proclamation from the Henry County Board of Supervisors declaring Sept. 7 to be Josh Shilling Day in the county. As it turned out, the band, Brewster Walk organizers, and Shilling’s family were all in on the surprise.
The idea originally came about because “Josh is well-known in our community for his talent and for his love of his hometown,” Hall said. “He’s a terrific advocate for Martinsville-Henry County. Our board members and staff wanted to recognize that and say ‘thanks’ for his efforts, and proclaiming a day in his honor was a great way to do that.”
Hall suggested the idea of presenting the award during Shilling’s Brewster Walk performance. Buck and co-organizer William Baptist were “immediately on board.”
The next step was bringing the rest of Mountain Heart into the loop, and making sure Shilling’s friends and family knew about it so they could plan to be there for the presentation. Luckily, no one spilled the beans beforehand.
“I was surprised on so many levels,” Shilling said later. “It’s a huge honor.”
Hall took the microphone and began reading the proclamation to the crowd. In it, he praised Shilling not only for his success in the national music industry, but for his role as the “artist-in-residence” for the annual Rooster Walk Music & Arts Festival held in Axton every Memorial Day weekend, thus “helping to make our homegrown festival one of the best in the country.”
Among Shilling’s accomplishments, he has played the renowned Grand Ole Opry more than 130 times and shared the stage with acts ranging from Lynyrd Skynyrd, Montgomery Gentry, Merle Haggard, George Jones and Brad Paisley to Alison Krauss, Tony Rice, The Avett Brothers, Yonder Mountain Stringband, The Punch Brothers, Levon Helm, John Fogerty, and many more.
Mountain Heart’s self-produced 2016 album “Blue Skies” debuted at the number two spot on the Billboard Charts and received a favorable review from Rolling Stone magazine, among other accolades. Shilling won two Grammys for his songwriting collaborations with the Infamous Stringdusters in 2018 and The Travelin’ McCourys in 2019.
Hall finished by encouraging the Brewster Walk audience to “follow the example of Mr. Shilling by being proud of where we come from and where we are, and working diligently to make our community even better than it is today.”
Later, Hall recalled, “Seeing how the other members of Mountain Heart got behind it, when they stopped playing the second song and just looked at Josh, was a cool moment. And then the crowd went crazy when it realized what we were doing, so that just topped it off,” he said. “Josh deserves it, and I was happy to be part of the whole thing.”
The next day, Shilling was still processing the honor he had received. “I don’t have the words to describe how it felt to receive the proclamation. It was amazing,” he said. As for the plaque, he said, “This is going on the studio wall, right next to the Grammys.”
During the presentation, he said his 5-year-old daughter was watching on Facetime and asked him later what it all meant. “I explained it was a day named after me, and she said, ‘Oh, that’s awesome, it’s Daddy Day!’”
Shilling said Martinsville and Henry County would always feel like home. “Even after 12 or 13 years of being gone, just about every day I get a call, a text, an email from somebody in this area saying ‘Hey, how ya doin’? When are you coming back?’”
Asked about his musical career, Shilling remained humble. “I feel like I’m standing on the shoulders of giants,” he said. “People have lifted me up and helped me so much at every stop along the way. They’ve allowed me to accomplish what ultimately was a childhood dream.”
“I can’t think of anywhere else in the world I’d rather be from.”