Bluegrass stalwarts Blue Highway have been around since 1994, and their newest full-length, Sounds of Home, is their seventh. The trick to maintaining such longevity rests in finding new inspiration in familiar places. This may be even truer for bluegrass than for other musical genres. It’s not as if the drummer can throw in a few techno beats, for example, or the mandolin player can layer in some wah-wah effects.
Still, for bluegrass fans, there is plenty to like on this record. The dozen tracks here range from two and a half to four minutes, with no extended jams or out-of-left-field experiments with instrumentation or arrangement. Plenty of on-point vocal harmonies and skillful instrumentation, including some nifty slide guitar, fill out an enjoyable but generally unsurprising set.
Sounds of Home kicks off with the very traditional, and traditionally satisfying, “I Ain’t Gonna Lay My Hammer Down”, a punchy toe-tapper propelled by Jason Burleson’s banjo and Tim Stafford’s vocals. This is followed by the somewhat saccharine title track, which proves somewhat less traditional and a whole lot less interesting.
“Restless Working Man” and “Only Seventeen” are a pair of strong tracks, the former an uptempo, heartfelt tribute to those who labor with their hands all day, and which benefits from some jangly banjo licks. “Only Seventeen” turns its attention to another kind of laborer, the coal miner, with a sorrowful tale of catastrophe and loss. Maybe I’m just partial to songs about coal mine disasters (see also Buddy and Julie Miller’s “Quecreek”), but the song carries a surprising emotional punch packed into a short running time.
“Storm” is a rousing tune that manages to personify bad weather and make it seem threatening rather than silly. The song’s defiant tone makes for a rousing chorus as well. “Roaring Creek” is the album’s requisite breakneck instrumental workout, and if “Nobody’s Fault But Mine” isn’t a remake of the Led Zeppelin epic off of Presence—too bad!—it’s mighty satisfying nonetheless. A quasi-devotional built around a wailing fiddle and repeated vocal chants (“Momma taught me how to pray… Poppa taught me how to pray”), it conveys a certain apocalytic glory even as it carries a faint whiff of desperation. More of this, please.
Not all the news is good, though. “Heather and Billy” veers again into easy-sentiment territory with its thumbnail sketches of neglected children, and “My Heart Was Made to Love You” is every bit as predictable as its title suggests. Often, the power and verve of a bluegrass tune is directly proportional to its tempo, and Blue Highway prove that to be true more often than not. In other words, the uptempo tunes rock; the slower ones, not so much.
Despite that, this is a solid effort from a group of passionate musicians. Throw away the weakest couple of songs and you still have a set that’s far above average in terms of musicianship, expression and verve. If this album is an indication of what Blue Highway can achieve 17 years into their career, here’s hoping for another 17—at least.