Blue Highway – At the mercy of the song
In Blue Highways, William Least Heat-Moon’s classic road chronicle, the author “took to the open road in search of places where change did not mean ruin and where time and men and deeds connected.” As it turns out, the band Blue Highway travels that same open road. And their music resonates with the sounds of those same timeless places.
Together since New Year’s Eve 1994, Blue Highway released its eight album, Through The Window Of A Train, February 15 on Rounder. Previous releases have earned the International Bluegrass Music Association’s Album of the Year (for 1995’s It’s A Long, Long Road) a Dove Award for their 2003 all-gospel collection Wondrous Love, and two Grammy nominations.
Both musically and geographically, Blue Highway is a hard band to pin down. Their five members reside in four states — North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia and Tennessee — but right now the bus is parked outside guitarist Tim Stafford’s house in Kingsport, Tennessee. The mountain music of southern Appalachia provides a solid bedrock for their sound. However, Blue Highway also manages to appear at once contemporary and rooted. While bluegrass is certainly an accurate reference point for the Blue Highway sound, that influence is never restrictive. Their music looks back, even as it looks forward.
“I have consciously gone back and tried to put in some stuff that maybe even pre-dates what you’d call traditional bluegrass,” Stafford says. “I mean stuff like the Dock Boggs influence — which I love Dock Boggs. I love that country-blues sound. It’s different. It’s pre-bluegrass. We’ve done old-timey-sounding things. We also did some shape-note singing which definitely pre-dates bluegrass. So there’s other traditions out there. There is a huge amount of other material that you can draw on besides Jimmy Martin, Flatt & Scruggs, or New Grass Revival.”
Strong original songwriting has long been a hallmark of Blue Highway’s music. Stafford, bassist Wayne Taylor and mandolin/fiddle player Shawn Lane are all gifted writers. Rob Ickes (dobro) and Jason Burleson (banjo) write instrumental tunes that are tasteful as they are dynamic. With influences ranging from jazz artists such as Sylvain Luc and Bireli Lagrene, to the classic country of Merle Haggard, to the folk-pop of James Taylor and Paul Simon, Blue Highway albums are unashamedly song-driven.
“The song is what really should dictate everything,” Stafford says. “We’re just out here slugging along at the mercy of the song, as far as I’m concerned.”
The subject matter of Blue Highway’s songs is even more contemporary than the sound. Two songs on the new album, “Homeless Man” and “Two Soldiers”, have political overtones not to be found on most modern bluegrass records.
“There’s no overt decision to do anything for a political reason,” says Stafford. “We don’t ever sit down and say, ‘Let’s write a political song here.’ It always works out the way it needs to. It’s never by design. For example, ‘Homeless Man’ came directly out of an experience that Wayne had back in ’05 when we went to the Grammys in Los Angeles. There were a lot of homeless vets on the streets out there, and that’s what inspired that song.”
“Two Soldiers” explores the stark reality of loss. “I’d seen a CNN story where a soldier had been killed in battle,” Stafford recalls, “but he’d already written a letter that got home after he died. And he said, ‘If you see two soldiers at your door, you’ll know I’m already in heaven.’ And that struck me, so I wrote that down. And I thought, wow, out of all the jobs you could have, imagine what those guys have to go through day in and day out.”
Lane’s compositions tend to be quiet, introspective studies. “Sycamore Holler”, however, has a certain modal quality that sounds every bit as ancient as “Pretty Polly” or “Little Margaret”. Built around a pulsing riff that spotlights the interplay among guitar, dobro and mandolin, the song tells the story of a man whose lover is kidnapped by Union soldiers. He settles the score with “a lightning horse,” two guns and a blade so they can return home and raise their children “down by the forked stream.”
Discussing current trends in bluegrass music, Stafford cites Chris Thile’s new band, the Punch Brothers, as well as the Infamous Stringdusters, whose album Stafford produced. “That’s a new pattern, where you’ve got all those virtuoso instrumentalists,” he says. “I really think that’s the pattern for bluegrass as it goes down the road. These are guys who have serious musical pedigrees, too. They’re musicians. They can play anything, and they choose to play bluegrass and make it utterly contemporary. I’m excited about that direction.
“I never did really like it when bands would try to force a rock song that wouldn’t fit into a bluegrass format,” he adds, “because I think it did a disservice to the song. And to me that’s really what’s important. If we come up with an arrangement for a song that’s sort of modern, it’s because of the song. I like what Shawn says: ‘If you listen hard enough to the song, it will tell you how to play it.'”