by Tom Thorpe
You would think it would be a piece of cake reviewing a CD that includes the IBMA 2008 Song of the Year, “Through the Window of a Train”, especially since the band performing it is one of my all time favorites. I love these guys so much that I take dobro lessons from Rob Ickes and even spent a week with the group the year before last touring Alaska. However, I felt a special responsibility to critique this project as objectively as I could. So here goes:
Through the Window of a Train is made up of twelve original tracks. Each tune adds to the overall excellence of this CD, contributing special meaning, melody or instrumentation and clearly demonstrating the unique songwriting abilities of Shawn Lane, Tim Stafford, Wayne Taylor and Jason Burleson. While I have all their other CD’s in my personal collection, I can honestly say that this one is a cut above all those that came before. Through the Window of a Train demonstrates the maturity and skill that is gained only after playing together with the same group of musicians for fifteen years. In fact, the opening song, “Life of a Travelin’ Man,” written and sung by Shawn Lane, sets the stage and lets us know that Blue Highway knows the pressures of the road and has the instrumental chops earned from years of professional experience.
The title cut, “Trough the Window of a Train” is a treat for the listener. Rob’s resonator guitar kickoff just grabs you and puts you on the train with the band. Wayne Taylor does an outstanding job painting pictures for us in this beautiful bluegrass tune written by Tim Stafford and Steve Gulley. Each instrument in the band adds an essential layer to the richness of this song. These guys are among the best pickers in the business, but when you listen to them on this song you hear how unselfish each is and how they keep the focus on the overall sound of the band.
My personal favorite on the CD is Tim Stafford’s sensitive tribute to soldiers and their loved ones, “Two Soldiers.” In fact, I’ve added this tune to my own performance set list. There are lyrics in this song that will put a tear in your eye and a frog in your voice if you try to sing it out loud. Tim’s vocals are superb on this song and his guitar playing is without par. Even the addition of a softly played snare drum fits in this bluegrass masterpiece, which will take its rightful place next to similar tributes such as “Where the River Bends.”
Jason Burleson demonstrates what a tremendous banjo and mandolin player he is on his original tune, “The North Cove.” I did some picking next to Jason while on our bluegrass cruise to Alaska and have to tell you he is awesome. Jason is a pretty quiet guy, who can play anything with strings attached to it. “The North Cove” will have all the banjo pickers out there scurrying around for tablature real soon.
Wayne Taylor continues to amaze followers of Blue Highway with his singing, bass playing and song writing abilities. He’s done it again here with “Homeless Man” and “Just Another Gravel in the Road.” Wayne is the MC of the group, who can get us all laughing and keep us entertained for hours. On “Through the Window of a Train,” though, his songs make us sit up and listen, think and feel. He’s demonstrating outstanding maturity as a songwriter here and choosing to write songs with a purpose.
Blue Highway cut most of these songs at a little studio in Big Stone Gap, Virginia not far from where most of them live. You can feel a certain connection with home and a straightforward approach to recording this project. In Shawn Lane’s “Sycamore Hollow” you can hear the mountains and feel the pull of the hollows of the Blue Ridge. Shawn has created a hauntingly beautifully melody here that will appeal to the most traditional bluegrass lovers out there.
If there was any negative in this CD, I guess I can say I was a little disappointed with the cover graphics of this CD, since they are overly simple and in black and white. Perhaps that is in keeping with how the band viewed this work. CD jackets are just so limiting anyway. I miss the days of LP’s where you could get 8 x 10″ color photos and pages of liner notes that could take days to read.
As you may have noticed by now, I’m in awe of Blue Highway. They are wonderful musicians and just great all around, talented performers and simply put – nice folks. I would encourage every bluegrass lover to give this CD a listen and add it to your collection.