Album of the Week #6 – Blue Highway

I hope you all had a very Merry Christmas. My household was filled with the giving and receiving of Stanley Brothers’ LPs, Merle Haggard DVDs, the new Crowe Brothers record, and Lonesome Dove. I had a great time spending time with loved ones and celebrating the birth of Christ. I hope everyone else’s was similar.

Now, down to business. One of my favorite bluegrass bands ever is Blue Highway. Not only are they master pickers and singers, but their music has a special character. I credit this to two main reasons: 1) original material and 2) longevity.

The songwriting of all of the members is among the best in the business. Their creative capacities are unparalleled when it comes to molding strong, new songs that stretch both the ear and the mind. Not only are their songs musically stimulating, but they often involve subject matter which stirs the mind. Songs such as Homeless Man, Two Soldiers, Drinking From A Deeper Well, and more, cause the listener to ponder issues bigger than themselves, while tunes like Sounds Of Home, Through The Window Of A Train, and Ain’t Gonna Lay My Hammer Down remind us of a simpler time.

Another key to personality of Blue Highway’s music is the band’s longevity. For more than fifteen years (with one brief deviation), the same five members have stayed loyal to the band. Any one of these individuals (Shawn Lane, Wayne Taylor, Jason Burleson, Rob Ickes, and Tim Stafford) are more than capable of going out on their own and starting “The New Best Bluegrass Band,” but their loyalty to the band and to each other is proven in the quality of their music.

Jason Burleson is one of the most underrated banjo players in the industry, and one of my favorites on the circuit today. His timing is superb, and the flavor with which he plays elevates him from the herd.

I say this now, because my choice for Album Of The Week #6 is the band’s self-titled project, Blue Highway. This 1999 recording is the lone Blue Highway album on which Jason does not appear. He had left the band that year for more time at home, and was succeeded by five-string master, Tom Adams. When Adams departed shortly thereafter to work with Rhonda Vincent, Jason returned to the band where he has remained without interruption.

Adams fills Burleson’s big shoes on this album, and does so exceptionally.

As a wee youngster, this is one of the first CDs I can vividly recall listening to over, and over… and over. In the back of my mom’s minivan, I would holler out requests. Even as an adult, this record is never far from reach, and is as familiar as an old friend. Of course, now that I am older, many of the songs make a lot more sense than they did when I was eight.

Now a Blue Highway standard, Born With A Hammer In My Hand, kicks off the album. As a child, the title metaphor suggested some interesting images of infants grasping claw hammers while lying in the crib. (Luckily, my mother explained the symbolism before I went too far down that road.) Tunes of the hard-working man are a staple in the bluegrass diet, and Blue Highway does them as well as anyone. In my eyes, this one is a modern-day classic.

There are two songs on this album which were made famous by other artists, however, Blue Highway’s original interpretations are quite memorable on their own. The boys dug out the Stanley classic Man Of Constant Sorrow, and Shawn Lane’s crystal clear vocals and Rob Ickes’ bluesy dobro are a nice contrast to the rugged mountain style of Ralph Stanley, to whom we all look to when it comes to this bluegrass favorite.

The whole world is now familiar with this song thanks to O Brother, Where Art Thou (it is probably being sung at a karaoke bar right now!), but keep in my mind that this album was recorded in 1999, before the O Brother craze that turned this song into a phenomenon. Man Of Constant Sorrow was already a bluegrass classic in ’99, but not nearly as “over-covered” as it is today.

Sting’s I Hung My Head my seem like quite a stretch for a band who just performed Man Of Constant Sorrow, but Blue Highway pulls it off with aplomb. The song tells of a convict in remorse; a very stirring tune. Unless you go mining through liner notes, you would have no idea that this was not a traditional bluegrass tune worked over. The uptempo arrangement provides some stellar instrumental breaks.

For fun, I suggest comparing this track with Johnny Cash’s cover on the Rick Rubin produced American IV: The Man Comes Around. The styles are quite different, but it makes for an interesting analysis.

Blue Highway performs two Gospel tunes on this project: I Am Near The Gate and Father, I Know Why. I Am Near The Gate is an a cappella number that showcases the pure vocal power this group possesses. Their vocal versatility is a key to their success. Shawn Lane, Wayne Taylor, and Tim Stafford all three are outstanding lead vocalists. They each sing with a distinct style when up front, but when blended, the group’s harmony is supremely unified.

Father, I Know Why tells the story of Jesus through His own eyes. It paints a very different portrait of Christ than we are used to hearing in song, but it does an excellent job in exploring Jesus’ humanity. If you’ve listened to a lot of bluegrass Gospel like I have, this one offers an appealing change of pace.

I mentioned earlier that Blue Highway often does material that makes you think, or asks questions about big issues. A pair of songs on this album do a great job of exemplifying this: Clay and Ottie and That Could Be You. More than twelve years later, I still have to fight back tears every time I listen to Tim Stafford’s Clay and Ottie. The song, based on actual events in Stafford’s family, follows two brothers who leave their home in the south to find work up north in Cleveland. While away from home, Ottie takes sick and dies. The family sells their home to prevent their son from being buried in an unmarked grave. This is one that really hangs with you for a while.

That Could Be You causes you all to count our blessings and take stock of how lucky we are.

“Remember all the homeless familes, all the battered wives, all the children who go to sleep hungry night after night, cause that could be you. That could be you. But for the grace of God, that could be you.”

This one might lead you to alter your prayer requests at night, and remind you to thank God for your blessings. Songs such as these really make not getting the right shirt for Christmas, or the scratch on your Willie Nelson album, seem a lot less important.

I wish had time to elaborate on some of the other gems found on this album such as Don’t Come Out Of The Hole, Lonely Old Town, Troubles Up And Down The Road, It Wasn’t You, and Lonesome Hearted Blues, but if I did that, I’m afraid I might run out of pixels!

Blue Highway still sounds just as fresh as it did twelve years ago, and I have a good feeling that we will still be able to say that twelve years from now. This has always been one of my favorite albums, and if you have never popped it in your car, I encourage you drop what you are doing an get a copy (unless you’re reading this on an iPhone, because those are expensive and dropping it would be a bad idea).

Blue Highway is on Skaggs Family Records (SKFR-2002-CD). The initial edition of this project on the Ceili Label, and Skaggs Family picked the album up in 2001. This makes perfect sense because Ricky Skaggs was a producer of the album, and it was recorded in his studio. If nothing else, this album is worth buying for the back cover which showcases Ricky Skaggs pumping gas for the band’s attractive chauffeur!

Blue Highway can be purchased on CD via Classic Country Connection and County Sales, and is available for download on iTunes.

For kicks and giggles, what’s your favorite album of 2011? IBMA Members will have to whip out a real calendar for this one: April 1- March 31 is not the time schedule the rest of the world runs on.

Have a Happy New Year everyone!

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About the Author

Daniel Mullins

Daniel Mullins is an IBMA award-winning journalist and broadcaster from southwestern Ohio, with an American Studies degree from Cedarville University. He hosts the Walls of Time: Bluegrass Podcast and his daily radio program, The Daniel Mullins Midday Music Spectacular, on the Real Roots Radio network. He also serves as the station’s music director, programming country, bluegrass, and Americana music.