Blue Highway- Sounds of Home Rounder Records
Have you ever heard a less than impressive album from bluegrass superstars Blue Highway? Me neither.
During the course of their 17 years as a heavy-hitting bluegrass outfit, the quintet- Tim Stafford, Wayne Taylor, Jason Burleson, Shawn Lane, and 12-time IBMA Dobro player of the year Rob Ickes- has maintained an almost perfectly stable line-up while delivering consistently impressive recordings.
Featuring a trifecta of accomplished lead vocalists- Stafford, Taylor, and Lane- possessing distinctive but complementary sounds is one of several elements that distinguish Blue Highway from many contemporaries. Their performances mesh into the richest, most vibrantly coloured bluegrass presentation. Listening to Blue Highway- both live and on recordings- evokes the same type of quiet contemplation one experiences in places like Florence’s Uffizi Gallery; no matter which direction you turn, you know you are experiencing something timeless and meaningful.
Not for the first time in their career, Blue Highway has elected with Sounds of Home to trust themselves in selecting only band-written material; each song is at minimum a co-write with folks like Barry Bales, Steve Gulley, and Jon Weisberger. And although the band members do not write with each other here, there is nothing apparent that suggests disunity. As Weisberger intimates in his liner notes, Blue Highway is truly a band of equals.
When I was listening to the album one of the many thoughts that went through my mind was that Sounds of Home quite simply sounded like Blue Highway always sounds: note-perfect, harmony rich, classy and driving bluegrass. One isn’t surprised by such a thought; rather I’m comforted by the knowledge that one can continue to take some things for granted. “I Ain’t Gonna Lay My Hammer Down” is a prototypical bluegrass-radio song while “Heather and Billy” is a nice tribute to foster and adoptive parents. The title track is just a spectacular lonesome song written and sung by Lane.
As one might anticipate, the band doesn’t play things entirely safe, branching off from the bluegrass trunk in various places. “My Heart Was Made to Love You” has strange quality to it that brings to mind a lonesome Texas Playboys meets “Say You, Say Me” amalgam that sounds much better than it reads; Ickes pulls out the lap steel for this one. While there is plenty o’ banjo, so prominently is the Dobro featured on Burleson’s “Roaring Creek” that I mistook it for an Ickes composition. Lane’s fiddling adds another dimension to the song, providing additional evidence of the group’s flexibility and intuition.
For me, the highlight of the album is “Only Seventeen” (yet another) excellent song about working (and dying) “down in the place of endless light.” Taylor balances predictable subject matter with tension honed from acute word choices: from initial listen, you anticipate the youthful miner’s death but the description of the cave-in uses artful language (“Timbers they cracked as the top came in, you heard the cries and the prayers of some mighty men, Said ‘God have mercy on our poor souls, must we all perish for this seam of coal.’”) that is immensely impressive. The band backs off momentarily for the final verse before coming together to deliver a devastating coda.
Another wonderful album from one of the world’s top- and still freshest- bluegrass bands.
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