So much of Tim Stafford’s identity is wrapped up in Blue Highway, his musical home for the last two decades. He’s one terrific songwriter, singer and picker, but in that setting he’s surrounded by a bandful of them who share the spotlight.
On Just to Hear the Whistle Blow, his first solo project in 10 years, Stafford steps out and reminds us just how good he is. And how versatile.
Let’s start with the guitar, since this is a guitar-centric album. Any discussion of bluegrass guitar these days begins with Tony Rice, then turns to Kenny Smith, Bryan Sutton, Jim Hurst and a handful of others. Whistle provides solid evidence that Stafford deserves to be mentioned in the same breath.
Throughout the 14 tracks, he plays with drive and finesse, and in a variety of styles. Bluegrass, folk, blues, Celtic and a touch of jazz are all found here. He uses a variety of tunings, too, not just the old standby Drop D. When was the last time you heard a song played out of an Open C9 tuning? (Fortunately, for those of us trying to play along at home, he explains the tunings in the liner notes!)
The result is a fresh, energetic sound. You could spend a pleasant afternoon just listening to the six instrumental tracks on the CD. That’s a lot of instrumentals for one project, but each is different so it works. It helps, of course, that Stafford’s guitar work is supplemented by an all-star cast – Ron Stewart on banjo and fiddle, Stuart Duncan on fiddle, Adam Steffey on mandolin and Barry Bales on bass. John Gardner adds percussion on some tracks. Regular readers know I’m not a big fan of drums in bluegrass, but his work tastefully serves the few songs that he plays on.
>The best of the instrumentals include Janet’s Song (in the Open C9 tuning) and Poodle on the Dashboard. Stafford wrote that last one after seeing a poodle sliding around the dashboard of a passing car. The melody slides around a bit, just like the dog! Red Wing is worth a special mention, too, even though it’s been recorded many times over the decades. Stafford gives it a fresh flavor with a two-capo tuning.
But if you focused on the instrumentals, you’d miss other great stuff on the buffet that Stafford serves up. First, the vocals. Stafford’s voice is comfortable and familiar, like old, broken in loafers. But there are two extra treats: Marty Raybon’s lead vocal on Worry’s Like a Rockin’ Chair and the mountain-tinged singing of Beth Snapp on It Ain’t the Mountain. I haven’t heard her sing before. I hope to hear her sing again. Snapp also joins with Steve Gulley to add fine harmonies to the mix.
The other strong suit here is the songwriting. Calling it inventive might be selling it short. Bluegrass has a rich trove of train songs, for instance. But the title cut, written by Stafford and Gulley, turns the story inside out, focusing on the guy who didn’t ride the train out of town and often regrets it.
So many hopped a freight train
Addicted to the sound
But me, I took the safe track
And never left this town
The other song with a twist is Hideaway Hotel, another Stafford-Gulley collaboration. Most writers would approach a song about a fleabag flophouse from the point of view of an addict, a prostitute or somebody who passes by every day and witnesses the sadness and decay. These guys tell the story from the point of view of the hotel.
Like the previously mentioned buffet, Just to Hear the Whistle Blow offers something for all tastes. Even if you don’t like everything, what you do like will fill you up and stick with you for a long time.
Here’s hoping Tim Stafford doesn’t wait another decade for his next solo project.