Over the past 25 years, I doubt if I have more regularly anticipated something as much as a new Blue Highway CD. Ever since their first release in 1995, It’s A Long Long Road, this group has introduced new classics into the bluegrass canon with each subsequent project at the same rate as our first generation pioneers. That they are still performing this far down the road with four of the original five members, is a testimony to their professionalism, artistic excellence, and spirit of cooperation.
The founding old timers are Wayne Taylor on bass, Jason Burleson on banjo, Shawn Lane on mandolin, and Tim Stafford on guitar. All but Jason also sing both lead and harmony vocals, though Jason does sing bass on quartets. All are also songwriters for the group, and in recent years they have been able to complete new projects with songs they all have written. Their fifth is Gary Hultman on resonator guitar, a recent addition, who also provides harmony on a couple cuts.
Now as the band heads into their official Silver Anniversary as recording artists, they are prepared to deliver yet another album to the bluegrass market, Somewhere Far Away, which officially hits tomorrow (August 2) on Rounder Records. We took the opportunity to speak with Tim Stafford, about some of the songs they have chosen, and how they have managed to work so long together.
Is this new album all original from within the band?
“Yes it is. 12 originals. Wayne Taylor wrote two – one with Ronnie Bowman and one with me – Jason Burleson wrote an instrumental, Shawn Lane wrote the title track and three others (with Gerald Ellenberg). The rest are mine – two with Bobby Starnes, and two with Steve Gulley.”
Is there a theme or concept that ties the songs together?
“Over 25 years we have done a lot of western material, and there are several here as well, including two outlaw ballads I wrote – Cochise County, and Both Ends Of The Train.
We took several vacations out west when I was a kid, and we had relatives in Phoenix – my parents had lived out there when they were younger as well. The wide open space always appealed to me – it was so different from Appalachia where I grew up.
The legends of the outlaws became so big in the popular imagination, but they were also real people, and that’s what appeals to my imagination.
We were even able to find a Roger Mason painting of downtown Telluride for the cover when we were looking for a western theme painting.”
How do you guys present material when it’s time to record?
“We usually get together a good while before we go in the studio, and pick up a guitar and sing the tunes for the band, or play recordings if we have them. Then we email each other with our impressions of what we heard. It’s kind of my favorite part of the whole thing, where you hear these songs for the first time. For me, I never seem to be able to pick which songs of mine will fit with the band, so it really helps to share with the guys. We seem to pretty quickly agree on which ones we want to cut.”
How about the recording process?
“We like to record live for the most part, though Wayne likes to go back and cut his vocal. The rhythm tracks are almost all live, though we may do the instrumental breaks after.
Everything was done at Hat Creek Recording Company in Jonesborough, TN. Jim Price engineered, and Scott Vestal did the mixing. We’ve used those guys for the past few, and love the way they make us sound.”
Does the Silver Anniversary mean a lot to you guys?
“25 years… it’s hard to believe. We kept the original 5 guys for 20 years, and original 4 all this time.”
Here’s video of the first single, recorded live at WNRN radio in Charlottesville, VA earlier this spring.
Somewhere Far Away will be available wherever quality music is sold online on August 2, and on CD from the Blue Highway web site.