Anyone who is new to bluegrass – listener, artist, writer, producer – and many who have been doing it for years, should be required to listen to Sounds of Home, the new release from Blue Highway on Rounder. Everything about this project screams a lesson that is too often lost in this genre, and many others: Less is more.
From the opening notes of Jason Burleson’s banjo kickoff on I Ain’t Gonna Lay My Hammer Down to the Shawn Lane’s mandolin fadeout on Drinking From a Deeper Well, this project is a graduate school program in bluegrass music.
Listeners are exposed to a survey of the genre in just 12 songs – traditional feeling grass (If You’ve Got Something to Say), a newer feel (Bluebird Days), a scorching instrumental (Roaring Creek), a heart-tugging story song (Heather and Billy) and a classic-feel waltz-time offering (Drinking From a Deeper Well). For good measure, there’s a superbly rearranged song from the public domain (Nobody’s Fault But Mine) and a nod to classic Hank Snow-style country (My Heart Was Made to Love You, written by Blue Highway bassist Wayne Taylor and featuring Rob Ickes on lap steel guitar).
Roaring Creek: [http://traffic.libsyn.com/thegrasscast/roaring_creek.mp3]
Songwriters can improve their craft by deconstructing Lane’s Storm and Sounds of Home and Heather and Billy, from band member Tim Stafford and his go-to writing partner, Steve Gulley. Two lessons here: First, every word counts. Second, don’t succumb to the temptation to write just one more verse. Say what you have to say to tell the story and then get out of the way. Further proof of this: Six of the 12 songs come in at under three minutes. A song doesn’t have to be long to be terrific.
The corollary to that is a lesson for pickers and producers: Just because great players can play lots of notes doesn’t mean they should. I’d surely be hard-pressed to remember this lesson if I was working with Ickes, who probably needs a separate room in his house just to store all his Dobro-playing awards, and the underappreciated Lane on mandolin and Jason Burleson on banjo. Fortunately, these guys learned this lesson on their own long ago and don’t need any coaching to keep it simple. The whole project teaches this lesson, but for the short course, listen to the mando and Dobro work on Heather and Billy. You’ll hear elegant, understated simplicity that fits the song rather than overwhelm it. The same is true with vocal arrangements. These guys can sing with the best of them, but they wisely don’t overdo that, either. Three-part harmony is not required on every song.
Heather And Billy: [http://traffic.libsyn.com/thegrasscast/heather_billy.mp3]
For my money, Sounds of Home is worthy on the strength of three consecutive songs tucked in the middle of the CD – Heather and Billy, Storm, and Roaring Creek. They are textbook examples of strong writing, terrific picking, clean production and great pacing. Just about everything else is a bonus. My only quibble is with Only Seventeen, a mine disaster song that seems a bit road-worn, both in terms of topic and approach
This CD teaches one more valuable lesson. While some bands seem to change personnel as often as they change strings, Blue Highway has been the same five guys for going on 17 years. The trick, of course, is staying fresh after all of those years and all those miles on the road.
Overall, the project is terrific. Fans of Blue Highway will find themselves right at home. And newcomers will soon be headed in that direction.