The Game. A simple two-word phrase used to describe a myriad of things, often sporting events. It conjures up images of NBA Finals, National Championships, World Series, and Super Bowls – events which seem larger than life. However, what if “the game” is referencing something which is just as large as life? An event that is the game of life?
Blue Highway’s latest album does just that. The band’s tenth studio album delves into the aspects and complexities which make life, life. This Game of LIFE doesn’t include colorful squares and plastic families in convertibles. It digs much deeper. Songs reflect the realities of the human condition, such as heartbreak, hard work, and home.
In their twentieth year, Blue Highway shows no signs of diminishing results. Their drive for making powerfully fresh bluegrass remains just as strong as it was two decades ago.
“I think its our best record so far in our twentieth year together. We kinda use the same formula we always use. We get together and everyone throws out songs and we try to pick the 12 that will fit together the best,” says banjo man, Jason Burleson.
Guitarist and vocalist, Tim Stafford adds, “This is our tenth studio record, marking our twentieth anniversary, and it was one of our easiest records ever to record. Part of that had to do with the atmosphere. We recorded at Bobby Starnes’ Hat Creek Recording Company near Fall Branch, Tennessee, which is a new state-of-the-art facility. Jim Price, who engineered the last two Blue Highway records, did a great job on this one as well.”
The band sounds at ease on The Game. The comfortability which comes with maintaining the same lineup over a twenty year span is evident from the first note. Things starts off with the title track, a rambling, gambling, killing tune in the vein of Wild Bill Jones and Turn It On, Turn It On, Turn It On. The Game was performed at last fall’s IBMA Awards Show and whet the audience’s appetite for this new album.
All but one of the songs are band originals. The title track is one of four contributions from Shawn Lane. “Shawn Lane has matured into I believe one of the top five bluegrass song writers out there today,” says Stafford. It’s hard to argue with such fine songs as The Game, All The Things You Do, Where Jasmine Grows, and Just To Have A Job all appearing on this album.
“The more I hear Just To Have A Job, the more I think it’s one of the best tunes we’ve ever recorded,” says Stafford. He is right. This working man’s tune deals with the realities of life on the road as a truck driver. The occupation has often been fantasized in country music, so Just To Have A Job serves as a great portrait of the profession.
Lane’s Where Jasmine Grows sounds like an Appalachian classic. Complete with an old-timey frailing banjo intro, Where Jasmine Grows feels more like a song Ralph Stanley could have learned by word of mouth, rather than an original from the 21st century. Lane’s voice sounds better than ever, and Where Jasmine Grows places it on full display. “Shawn has always been an old soul, and that’s a good thing for bluegrass. His tenor just can’t be beat, in my opinion,” says Stafford.
Shawn Lane is not the only great singer in Blue Highway. One of the band’s keys to success has been great vocal variety. Shawn Lane, Tim Stafford, and Wayne Taylor are three of the most distinctive vocal stylists in bluegrass today, providing the band with a triple threat every time they step up to the microphone.
Stafford takes the lead on his and Jon Weisberger’s Church Bell Wedding Blues. This playful song is one of the catchiest to be released in a while. Stafford’s laid back delivery fits the song’s sentiment, while Burleson’s banjo-playing is a perfect compliment.
In addition to Church Bell Wedding Blues, Stafford had a hand in writing four of The Game‘s twelve tracks. “I really like the mix of songs and was thrilled that the group chose to pick some of my co-compositions,” says Stafford. “I loved the way Wayne Taylor sang A Change Of Faith In Tennessee and Remind Me Of You.”
A Change Of Faith In Tennessee brilliantly uses spiritual/religious language to describe the end of a relationship. Words and phrases such as “gospel,” “born again,” “saw the light,” “Book of Revelation,” and more, make this one of the most carefully constructed bluegrass songs ever written. It has a powerful effect on the listener. The song also includes guest harmony vocals. “Beth Snapp sings wonderful harmony on Change Of Faith,” says Stafford.
Remind Me Of You and Talk Is Cheap (a Wayne Taylor original and the album’s lead single) are vintage Blue Highway. Bluegrass fans will be able to identify the songs as new Blue Highway numbers within a handful of notes. This is a testament to the band’s distinct style, developed over the prestigious twenty year career. The vocal work is effortless on these contemporary bluegrass songs. “Wayne Taylor has one of the most recognizable voices in all of bluegrass, and it’s a great asset to have someone who can switch from lead to tenor like both he and Shawn can,” says Stafford. Matched with silky smooth instrumental work, they are destined to become Blue Highway standards. Expect significant chart action from these two standout cuts.
In addition to being blessed with great singers and songwriters, Blue Highway is one of the most instrumentally gifted bluegrass bands on the circuit today. “Rob and Jason are great instrumentalists, as well as Shawn,” says Stafford, who is no slouch on the guitar himself.
The Game does a great job showcasing the band’s instrumental prowess. “Rob and I each have an instrumental on there,” says Burleson. “Mine is called Dogtown and is kinda different from anything we’ve done before. I love the way it turned out on the CD. I was trying to write a lonesome sounding banjo tune in C minor.” Mission accomplished. The haunting instrumental shows why Jason Burleson is one of today’s most underrated bluegrass banjo players.
Funny Farm is a new instrumental from Rob Ickes. Named IBMA’s Dobro Player of the Year fifteen times, Rob Ickes is a modern master. Written in the style of an old-time fiddle/banjo tune, Funny Farm showcases the resophonic guitar’s endless possibilities when it is in Ickes’ hands. The tune also highlights Lane’s ability as a fiddler.
A welcome surprise on The Game is guest vocalist, Trey Hensley. Hensley handles the lead vocals on Stafford and Taylor’s My Last Day In The Mines. Surprisingly, Hensley’s inclusion on the album was somewhat of an accident. “Trey Hensley was only going to sing the pilot vocals on Last Day In The Mine, until we could get a well-known traditional singer to do a guest spot. But that guy never responded to our emails, so we left Trey’s vocal on the record!” explains Stafford. Hensley does a terrific job. Regardless of who the mystery traditionalist was going to be, he could not have delivered the song better than Trey did. His rich baritone will remind many bluegrass fans of Josh Williams. “It’s one take, live from the control room. That tells you how good this guy is!” says Stafford. Hopefully, we’ll be hearing more from this newcomer in the future.
The Game closes with the album’s lone non-original, an Appalachian sacred song entitled Hicks’s Farewell. The song is more than fitting to commemorate the band’s twentieth anniversary. “Hicks’s Farewell was one of the first songs Blue Highway thought about doing way back in 1994,” says Stafford. “I had heard Doc Watson do it. We decided to make it a lonesome a capella duet. The band loves the mournful mountain tunes and has from the beginning.” This powerful song is hauntingly breath-taking. A deathbed song along the same lines of Oh Death and Little Bessie, Hicks’s Farewell takes the listener on a journey through a man’s last moments on earth. Stafford and Lane’s captivating delivery will leave listeners chilled to the bone.
And so, this game of life ends as to be expected. After touching on so many of life’s ups and downs – heartbreak, contentment, loss, betrayal, hard work, change, sin, thanksgiving, and home – The Game is destined to end with the inevitable: death. Whether intentional or not, The Game serves as a portrait of what it means to live and play this game we all call life.