Blue Highway Original Traditional Rounder Records
For more than twenty years, listeners have been privileged every couple years to encounter a new album from Blue Highway.
Original Traditional, their eleventh and first since Dobroist Rob Ickes departed, continues their most recent blueprint: original music written or co-written by band members along with a single traditional song. The album’s title alludes to the group’s tendency to bridge the generations of bluegrass through recognition and reverence for the traditions of the music while ensuring a contemporary, original perspective is always present.
With three formidable lead vocalists and key songwriters—Tim Stafford (guitar,) Shawn Lane (mandolin, fiddle, guitar,) and Wayne Taylor (bass)— along with Jason Burleson’s alternately aggressive and pensive, propulsive and sympathetic banjo presence (his tune “Alexander’s Run” is a highlight of the recording) and an instrumental lineup as strong as has ever been staged, Blue Highway is one of the top bands in the business.
Joining the group for this recording is the youthful Gaven Largent, briefly of Michael Cleveland’s Flamekeeper and a player who doesn’t ease his way into the Blue Highway sound, confidently laying out his runs on mid-set numbers including the love-gone-wrong piece “What You Wanted” and the vengeful murder ballad “The Story of My Life.”
“Don’t Weep For Me”—essentially “I Don’t Believe You’ve Met My Baby” meets “Echo Mountain” minus the dog—is a strong lead song. The rest of the 38 minute album reveals the accustomed cast of bluegrass fellows who drink too much (“Water From the Stone,”) hold onto childhood trauma too long (“The Story of My Life,”) and lose a good woman’s love because of it all (“If Lonesome Don’t Kill Me.”)
Still, Blue Highway isn’t a band favouring one-dimensional songs, and none of those songs mentioned exist without shades of gray. In Shawn Lane and Gerald Ellenburg’s album closing number, Blue Highway revisit the good ole days at “The Top of the Ridge” while writing what sounds like either an elegy or (in darker eyes) a note of suicide. “She Ain’t Worth It,” in hands other than Tim Stafford and Steve Gulley, might have been just another song of fateful revenge; their protagonist thinks a little longer about his predicament—rather than grabbing his .44, he sits and “bathe(s) in the afterglow.”
“She Ain’t Worth It” swings more than a little, and features Largent to nice effect. Similarly, “Last Time I’ll Ever Leave This Town” provides the instrumentalists room to showcase their offerings. “Water From the Stone” has a pleasing and inspirational gospel quartet arrangement, while the a cappella treatment of “Hallelujah” is just showing off and seems a fine message to the IBMA: Why exactly aren’t we named Vocal Group of the Year annually?
I am sure I am not the only amateur fact-checker who has gone on extended forays to learn the true life blues behind particular folk and bluegrass numbers. Many (many) years ago, one of the first I did this with was “Tom Dooley,” the standard popularized by Grayson & Whitter, The Kingston Trio, Doc Watson, and hundreds of others. I remember scouring the local libraries for ‘facts’ related to the story of Tom Dula and Laura Foster.
On the Legacy recording made with David Holt, Watson suggested his grandmother knew something about the tale, and that intrigued me even more, as did reading Sharyn McCrumb’s excellent The Ballad of Tom Dooley. My interest was therefore piqued to read the song title “Wilkes County Clay” (the locale of those post-Civil War events) and even more thrilled as the song began with, “In North Carolina, in the County of Wilkes, there’s a tale of deception, murder, and guilt. I’ll spare no compassion, the truth I will tell, Let God alone judge me, this side of hell.” From those words, one knew where Tim Stafford and songwriting partner Bobby Starnes were going.
“Wilkes County Clay” is a mournful song, with Lane’s fiddle colouring the song much as one imagines the instrument did Dula’s final moments. While the narrator’s identify isn’t clear, the song is an agreeable telling of the tale, taking the Grayson-path that other accounts discount. The lyrical choices made (“She hid like a panther in the black of the night, And killed Laura Foster with a bone handle knife”) raises this above typical bluegrass fare.
Original Traditional is another outstanding bluegrass album from Blue Highway. They make it seem easy: forced listening to the number of less-than-adequate bluegrass albums available proves that it isn’t. Blue Highway is a great band, one that has been contributing fresh insight into the bluegrass spectrum for more than two decades. That they continue to rise to the level they do, never taking the easy way, never delivering less than stellar material, is testament to the importance they place on their legacy.
Excellent cover, presumably by Bobby Starnes, too!
Thank you for taking the time to seek out Fervor Coulee. I appreciate that there are lots of places to get roots information and opinion; I’m glad I’m one of them. Donald