by Janice McDaniels
Formed in 1994, Blue Highway has a proven formula for bluegrass success. Rock solid vocals with harmonies like chocolate, virtuosic instrumentalists and from the heart songwriting all bring it to the table that is bluegrass. This group, 17 years later, is comprised of all the original members. An impressive collection of awards that display the respect of others in the bluegrass musical field hang on their walls – multiple IBMA awards (including 11 Dobro Player of the Year for Rob Ickes), two Grammy nominations, a Dove Award (for their Wondrous Love album) and five SPBGMA awards. In essence, they know what they are doing.
Tim Stafford – The band’s guitar player was a founding member of the band Dusty Miller in 1992 moving on to help form Blue Highway a couple of years later. He played with Allison Krauss and Union Station, garnered many awards outside of Blue Highway and his songs have been added to the repertoire of so many, including Claire Lynch, The Infamous Stringdusters, Larry Sparks and Mountain Heart. Hailing from Kingsport, TN Stafford takes active role in promoting traditional music through organizations such as ETSU Center for Appalachian Studies.
Jason Burleson – This banjo player and multi-talented instrumentalist, with a love for jazz, holds down the bass end of the vocals, as well. Coming from Newland, NC, he’s the quiet one.
Rob Ickes – Also from North Carolina, Rob’s Dobro technique is innovative and in demand. An active session player in Nashville, go ahead, name a name and Ickes has probably collaborated with them! Did I mention all of his IBMA awards for Dobro playing? He has four solo albums with Rounder and has produced and recorded a jazz album on his own label, ResoRevolution.
Shawn Lane – Singer, songwriter with the skills on the mandolin, fiddle and guitar, Lane plied his trade by playing with Ricky Skaggs and Doyle Lawson before jumping into Blue Highway. Many of his songs have been recorded by others; Ricky Skaggs, Ronnie Bowman, Mountain Heart and Blue Ridge, to state a few.
Wayne Taylor – Winner of the 2001 SPBGMA Bass Performer of the Year, his songs are the most requested at Blue Highway concerts. In addition to anchoring the band with his foundational bass playing, he is the lead vocalist calling upon his soulful southwest Virginia roots to deliver the authenticity.
The band’s latest offering, Sounds of Home (Rounder Records), is Blue Highway’s tenth album (their sixth with Rounder) and it rides the scale from the lyrical and sentimental “Sounds of Home” to the hard core, slammin,’ banjo driven, toe tapper “Roaring Creek.” Not exactly traditional bluegrass, not exactly modern, Blue Highway strikes a balance between the old and new and leaves me very satisfied. Sounds of Home, over all, pleases me. Here are the first impressions and the first thing that I noticed is that this album is a little Dobro heavy – not that that’s a bad thing and overall I would have liked to have heard more guitar (but that’s just me) and fiddle in this album.
1. “Ain’t Gonna Lay My Hammer Down”- Banjo leads this one off and Taylor delivers non-stop alternating bass drive.
2. “Sounds of Home” – Stafford gives us a gentle guitar and the Dobro sets the mood; full of regret and longing to be back home.
3. “Bluebird Days” – Harmonies are sweet evoking those emotions tied to remembering old friends, old loves and summers past. Mandolin takes us on a nice journey.
4. “Restless Workin’ Man” – Expressive lament….life is hard and a guitar break is featured.
5. “Heather and Billy” – This carries a poignant message that I must admit, didn’t quite “get” at first.
6. “Storm” – Very nice vamping guitar work with great mandolin solo and chops reside here.
7. “Roaring Creek” – The only instrumental on this CD, it rocks.
8. “Only Seventeen” – This tune is reminiscent of Stanley Brothers’ “The Lonesome River.” Love the vocals.
9. “If You’ve Got Something To Say” – Nice bluesy mando, this is an “I know you’re leaving me, so go on, say so and git,” kind of song.
“If You’ve Got Something To Say”
10. “My Heart Was Made To Love You” – Who doesn’t love a sappy love song? This one takes me back in time.
11. “Nobody’s Fault But Mine” – A hypnotic, down in the soul Gospel song. This how I like to hear the fiddle played. I can hear the mountains in this one.
12. “Drinking from a Deeper Well” – Reflective and sweet waltz, pretty instrumentals lead the way to the lesson of slowing down and living life more abundantly.