Great news for Blue Highway fans – their next CD project should be out later this year. They have resigned with Rounder Records and this will be their 4th Rounder CD, and 8th album release as a band.
Blue Highway has seen their popularity in bluegrass grow steadily over more than ten years in the business, while managing to keep the membership almost wholly intact over that time. For what started out to be an occasional, part-time venture, having the same personnel with which they started is remarkable in and of itself. Despite original banjo player Jason Burleson having left the group for a time (replaced by ace banjo man Tom Adams for one CD), the band has been remarkably stable in a business where such stability is increasingly rare.
Guitarist Tim Stafford shared some thoughts about this upcoming project, as yet untitled. He said that this time out, they will be recording at Maggard Studio in Big Stone Gap, VA where so many legendary Ralph Stanley recordings were made.
“We just wanted something a little closer to home – for four of us anyway. We recorded all seven of our previous albums in Nashville, which always meant a lot of lodging expenses. This time, it’s only Rob who has to get a room, although Jason sometimes will too–he’s about 3 hours away from Big Stone. There was also the thought of trying something a little different, and saving some money! But we aren’t sacrificing quality–Jim Price, our engineer, is top-notch and everybody loves the feel of Maggard’s.”
Tim mentioned that they have 8 songs finished, all of them originals written within the band, and I wondered if that was their intention for this project.
“I don’t think anyone has written material just for this record–in fact, we’ve always just come to the table and pitched what the writers have been working on. One thing we used to do and I wish we did more of now is write together–seems like we’re too tired to do it when we’re on the road, and when we’re off it’s time to decompress. So these days it’s usually Wayne bringing his songs in, I’ll bring mine, and Shawn brings his. But Shawn and I have been doing a lot of co-writing (separately) with people outside the band. Rob is good at finding outside material too, and Jason wrote an instrumental we’ll most likely be recording.
A big part of our identity is our original songs, so we’re always going to do them first, but we weren’t shooting for an all-original album, like Still Climbing Mountains. We were confident enough in our writing at that time that we consciously wanted to do an all-original project. This one has four left to go, so some of them might be outside tunes, but there’s a possibility it will be all-original. We just like to let it happen as it goes down.”
I asked Tim if the song choices was developing into any sort of theme, and though he demurred on that question, he did offer some tantalizing previews of the material they have cut, and their approach in the studio.
“Wayne commented the other day that he really liked the vibe of this record, the way the material was falling together. We have three songs about soldiers and war, which might just be an unconscious reflection of the times we live in. But they’re all three very different–one about a homeless vet, another from the Civil War period, and another about a funeral detail that informs families that someone has been lost.
We also have a Shawshank Redemption song (unintentionally!), then other familiar themes in bluegrass: trains, blues, rambling. Not many love songs–we’re getting too old!
Shawn wrote a great Flatt and Scruggs-flavored gospel quartet called V-Bottom Boat. We recorded that one live around two mics, warts and all! In fact, all the vocals on this record have been live so far and the whole record has a very ‘live’ feel to it, which I really like.”
For my money, there are few other groups in bluegrass who turn out such consistently fine recordings, filled with interesting, intelligently-written songs, and performed with the elusive mix of virtuosity and restraint that serves as their hallmark. I will be eagerly awaiting this new CD.
Tim suggests that a Fall 2007 release may be realistic, though no dates have been set by Rounder at this time.