When a band has been around for over twenty years (with a membership that has rarely changed), fans come to expect certain things. In the case of Blue Highway, which releases its eleventh studio album, Original Traditional, today, we expect to hear strong lead vocals, impeccable musicianship, contemporary grass with an eye toward tradition, and perhaps most of all, some of the best original songs being written today. Longtime listeners will be glad to know that the new album succeeds on all counts.
For their past several albums, Blue Highway has only recorded all-original material written by members of the band, with the exception of a few updated arrangements of public domain numbers. As the first part of the album title suggests, this record is no different. However, as the second half of the title indicates, the songs here have a common theme, at least when it comes to their style – they almost all have a decidedly traditional vibe, perhaps more so than the band’s other recent output.
A contribution from Shawn Lane opens the album, kicked off by gritty banjo that perfectly matches the dark story told in the lyrics. A take on the classic bluegrass theme of a cheating woman and a vengeful husband, Don’t Weep for Me finds the song’s narrator readily admitting his guilt while also revealing a heartbreaking twist at the end of his tale. Thoughtful guitar from Tim Stafford opens another Lane composition, Top of the Ridge, a reflective, metaphorical piece about a place where “a peaceful wind is blowing, and the pain I had is gone.” Though the song itself doesn’t necessarily sound like something Ralph Stanley would have recorded, Lane seems to channel Stanley’s earthy, soulful vocals on the chorus.
Both What You Wanted and A Long Row to Hoe are classic Blue Highway, though in different ways. Gaven Largent’s dobro guides both numbers, proving himself both a fine replacement for Rob Ickes and a strong musician in his own right. What You Wanted is both bouncy and lonesome, with the song’s narrator trying to determine why the woman he loves wants “to leave a love so real.” A Long Row to Hoe, on the other hand, is about hard work and struggles, with a harsher, more urgent sound to match.
Last Time I’ll Ever Leave This Town is an enjoyable upbeat number with smooth lead vocals from Wayne Taylor; it ties together leaving, loving, and mining with a great catchy tune. Taylor also handles the lead on The Story of My Life, taking listeners through the rough-and-tumble life of a hard-working drifter who left home at thirteen, tired of an abusive stepfather. The song comes full circle in the last verse “with the click of a hammer,” though I won’t spoil the ending.
Stafford, who was named IBMA Songwriter of the Year a few years back, offers up several strong songs, as well. If Lonesome Don’t Kill Me speeds by at a furious pace (clocking in at barely over two minutes), with rapidly rolling banjo from Jason Burleson. It’s a solidly traditional drinking and losing song – think Junior Sisk. Stafford takes the position of a scorned man who now knows better than to worry about a hateful woman on She Ain’t Worth It. It’s a fun, bluesy number with a bit of swagger that both Stafford and the rest of the band seem to have a good time with.
The album’s standout song is perhaps Wilkes County Clay. A co-write between Stafford and frequent writing partner Bobby Starnes, it’s based in historical truth and shares part of the background of the popular folk song Tom Dooley. The story trickles out bit by bit, introducing listeners to the key players in the real-life murder ballad: jealous Annie, naïve Laura, and poor Tom Dula, who got caught in a mess not of his own making. Haunting and suspenseful, with an atmosphere aided by Lane’s fiddle, it’s likely to be a listener favorite.
Original Traditional is a masterful album by a group of artists who are masters at what they do. The four long-time members of the band have been hailed for their command of contemporary bluegrass for years, and Largent handily proves himself their equal. Fans of Blue Highway will not be disappointed, especially those who particularly enjoy the sound from some of their earlier albums.
The new record is available now from Rounder Records and can be purchased from a variety of music retailers.