september 2011

Blue Highway (from left: Rob Ickes, Jason Burleson, Tim Stafford, Shawn Lane, Wayne Taylor): Their stories cannot be told too often, and they tell them in ways unforgettable. (Photo: Scott Simontacchi)

Blue Highway Abides

Making a good year for bluegrass that much better with Sounds of Home

By David McGee

Blue Highway

A good year for bluegrass music from new and established bands and solo artists alike is heading into its final quarter in grand style with the release of Blue Highway’s Sounds of Home, the celebrated band’s first album of all-original material in a decade. Consider that last clause: “…the celebrated band’s first album of all-original material in a decade.” Therein are some remarkable facts about Blue Highway, a couple of which are noted by the estimable Jon Weisberger in his liner notes. One, Blue Highway is not only a band but a band unchanged in personnel for more than a decade and a half--a truly remarkable feat in the bluegrass world where annual lineup shifts are a regular end-of/first-of year occurrence, like baseball trades in the off-season. That 2001’s moving Still Climbing Mountains was Blue Highway’s previous collection of all-original material is a striking fact, too, because the quintet is so adept at taking possession of outside material, not in a copyright sense, mind you, but in terms of performance and passion. They honor the outside sources of their songs as surely as they do the material they fashion themselves, to the point where it all sounds like Blue Highway speaking personally and directly to listeners. This is a rare and subtle gift, completely eliminating whatever slight distance may exist between the songwriters’ original intent and their own interpretation of that intent until all parties speak in one voice. It may also seem like not so long ago that there was a Blue Highway album of all-original material because songwriting masters such as Tim Stafford seem to be showing up regularly on other projects either singing new songs of his own creation or being covered by other artists (Stafford can also lay claim to being part of one of 2010’s best albums, the transcendent Dogwood Winter, a duo effort with his frequent collaborator Steve Gulley, released on the Rural Rhythm label).

A video profile of Blue Highway centered on its sung “I Hung My Head’ from the group’s self-titled 1999 album

On Sounds of Home, though, Blue Highway takes it inside, leaning on the substantial gifts of its three peerless writers (Stafford, Shawn Lane and Wayne Taylor; they also call on their sterling banjo man Jason Burleson--properly described in Weisberg’s liner notes as an “under-appreciated master”--to provide a rousing instrumental, “Roaring Creek,” a showcase for Burleson’s impressive speed picking and melodic sense before he passes the baton to dobro titan Rob Ickes, fiddler Lane and guitarist Stafford for rip-roaring displays of virtuoso technical facility and warm-hearted spirit) to do what the group does as well as or better than any other in taking the measure of everyday lives, the temper of the times and the persistence of memory. Lane sets the pace with the hard charging album opener “I Ain’t Gonna Lay My Hammer Down,” a forceful but distraught missive from the bottom of a man’s broken heart. In moving on from a lost love to where he can regroup and live again, his anxiety is rendered palpable by the intensity of Lane’s vocal and its instrumental counterpart, Burleson’s driving banjo support. The unsettled intimation of things gone awry--kind of an antecedent to “I Ain’t Gonna Lay My Hammer Down”--informs the Stafford-Weisberger co-write “If You’ve Got Something to Say,” a song whose casual lope masks the gravity of the singer’s plight--he knows his gal is ready to take her leave of him and asks only to get on with it, a plea Stafford’s hearty voice delivers with precisely the right dollop of ache to undercut his otherwise-sanguine reading and the easygoing mood established by Burleson’s banjo and Ickes’s playful dobro commentary. In matters of the heart, though, Blue Highway is not all blue: Wayne Taylor’s sole contribution is a gem, a tender traditional country love ballad, “My Heart Was Made to Love You,” in which Taylor sings with earnest passion of a love destined to be, in an arrangement pared down to a beautiful austerity featuring only Ickes’s keening dobro and Burleson’s steady, propulsive guitar strumming behind Taylor’s affecting vocal.

Another video profile of Blue Highway from MINDTV35, featuring ‘Wondrous Love,’ the title song of the group’s 2003 Rounder album

Blue Highway also has its sights set on the rank and file trying to get through a day intact. Lane’s bustling “Restless Working Man,” spiked with Ickes’s searing swoops on the dobro and Burleson’s ever charging banjo, recounts the toll extracted by physical labor, day in and day out, on an itinerant hand, who, despite “my hands burned by the shovel/my back by the sun,” anticipates a day when “I’ll find the courage/to lay it down and run,” although Lane’s own words betray the folly of his dream. Work of a different sort--ennobling and fruitful on a broad scale--is detailed in Stafford’s co-write with his buddy Steve Gulley, a sensitive, folk-flavored balled, “Heather and Billy,” about a couple with one natural-born son of their own but who took in a brood of other children “some abandoned, some abused, some neglected, others used…never thinking of themselves, just how to care for someone else.” It’s also about how the titular couple finds the courage to “make it through” for the sake of their young charges--the song becomes a kind of sociological treatise even as it stirs a listener’s heart, and as such an ideal example of the unpredictable fare Blue Highway brings to its albums--always expect the unexpected from these guys.

Blue Highway, ‘He Walked All the Way Home,’ a Civil War tale from the group’s 1998 album, Midnight Storm, performed live at the Wenatche River Bluegrass Festival 2010. Posted at YouTube by washingtonbluegrass

On the more introspective side, consider Lane’s low-key reminiscence of another time, another place, “Sounds of Home,” and Stafford’s co-write with Bob Minner, "Drinking From a Deeper Well, " a thoughtful album closer. Lane’s beauty of a song is a fondly remembered recollection of the little things about his childhood home--“the rain on the roof/the skreakin’ of the stairs” (when’s the last time you heard someone sing about stairs “skreakin’”? Huh? When?)--that he wishes he had appreciated more in his younger days, a lament the protagonist in the Stafford-Minner song has vowed will not be his. The subdued rhythms and impassioned harmonies of “Drinking From a Deeper Well”--and not least of all a tender, piercing mandolin solo from Lane --serve the singer’s avowed determination to start savoring the little moments that add up in meaning as time passes: “These days I listen/For what I’ve been missing/Like stories my son wants to tell/I’ve learned how to slow down/Every day I’m above ground/I’m drinking from a deeper well.” Leave it to Blue Highway to bow out in a thought provoking way. The stories they tell cannot be told too often, and they always tell them in a memorable way. Like the Dude in The Big Lebowski, Blue Highway abides.

Blue Highway’s Sounds of Home is available at

Founder/Publisher/Editor: David McGee
Contributing Editors: Billy Altman, Laura Fissinger, Christopher Hill, Derk Richardson
Logo Design: John Mendelsohn (
Website Design: Kieran McGee (
Staff Photographers: Audrey Harrod (Louisville, KY;, Alicia Zappier (New York)
Mailing Address: David McGee, 201 W. 85 St.—5B, New York, NY 10024