2014 sees Blue Highway celebrate their 20th anniversary. Exemplifying a consistency that is unusual in bands of their type, Blue Highway have become a touchstone in contemporary bluegrass. In that 20 year span, all 11 of their albums have featured the same musicians that make up the group today. There’s none of the regular member-swapping that often denotes bluegrass bands for Blue Highway. The group’s existence has been marked by an ensemble mentality, and, as the bands themselves refer to it, a solid nod to the democracy of the band.
All five members are skilled writers of one type or another, with Jason Burleson (banjo, guitar, mandolin) and Rob Ickes (dobro) taking charge of the tunes, and Shawn Lane (mandolin, fiddle, vocals), Tim Stafford (guitar, vocals), and Wayne Taylor (bass, vocals) contributing to the band’s lyrics. The Kingsport, Tennessee-based five-piece are beloved by fans for their balance of tradition and innovation, and their longevity points to a band with both knowledge and awareness of what they do and how to do it.
That what they do is more than just licks and runs — of which there are plenty, the instrumentation on The Game really is something else — but is also a chronicling of life’s stories and situations, in a uniquely bluegrass prism, which although marked by similarities, ultimately differs from country music, and other genres with which it interacts.
Blue Highway are a senior band, doing things their way, whether it be through the warmth of their harmonies and the homeliness of Ickes’ dobro (“Remind Me Of You”), or the haunting fiddle of the instrumental “Dogtown”.
All of their experience has seasoned and preserved Blue Highway, their songs, and their message. They have plenty of new songs, but their presentation has remained in essence constant over the past two decades. 20 years with the same line-up is unusual and impressive, especially in bluegrass. The regret and sorry of “All The Things You Do” is real, and the hard-driving, expertly handled “Talk Is Cheap” is exhilarating. The band works very well on the faster numbers, where their playing matches the work they put into their arrangements.
With its close-recorded main vocals, “Church Bell Wedding Blues” utilizes a more humorous, banjo-driven approach, and the traditional feel of “Where Jasmine Grows” is a clawhammer-flavored highlight. Tales of rambling, travel and regret are and always have been a staple of the genre, as is the heartache and loss of “Just To Have A Job”, a touching tribute of the pushes and pulls of the working life.
True-to-life situations are the subjects of a great proportion of the tracks on The Game. Explained in a way which conforms to, and confirms, the mores of the genre. Songs like “Last Day In The Mine” echo bluegrass’s ability to sound timeless and contemporary in the same instance. Songs like this and others are presented honestly and without artifice, but with a tangible sense of reality and good-heartedness.
That being said, the album is not in any way dreary or depressing. The Game covers many different bases, and covers them well. The interplay between the fiddle, dobro and bass of “Funny Farm” shows the band know their chops, and the beaten-out rhythm inspires a 2014-vintage hoedown.
The old-time style “Hick’s Farewell”, a 19th-century hymn written by Berryman Hicks shows off a unifying, resounding sound, highlighting the fact that bluegrass is about more than sharp instrumentation, but also employs (unaccompanied) vocal harmonies that bring to mind both church and graveyard.
The Game is a solid work, further cementing Blue Highway’s reputation for high-quality song writing and performance. Blue Highway continue to lead the pack of contemporary bluegrass bands who take the genre from its roots into the future, uniting tradition, innovation and well-crafted songs, to the delight of their many fans.