Like a rock. Like a rock of marble. Like a town of marble. With a highway leading to it. A blue highway. Playing bluegrass like a rock. A rock of marble...
Bluegrass super-group Blue Highway has named their latest, Marbletown, after Mark Knopfler's song of the same name, one of only two non-originals on the record. That's not only a tribute to Knopfler, but also an indication of Blue Highway's selfless approach to contemporary bluegrass, and its attention to the song over the solo. Each member of the band (Tim Stafford, Shawn Lane, Wayne Taylor, Rob Ickes, and Jason Burleson) is a veteran of the scene, either on solo projects or with other acclaimed acts-but Blue Highway aspires to band-dom in pursuit of your fandom, not a gimmicky Circus-of-the-Stars style bluegrass round robin.
So, how does it play? Like a brand-new pair of blue jeans from Sears: clean and husky. Or a brand-new box of tools, also from Sears: clean, shiny, and back-a-truck-over-it-it'll-be-just-fine tough. Or a brand-new, well, you get the idea. Marbletown doesn't feature a radical take on the bluegrass tradition, but it's not what you'd call stale either. It's just hard-working, journeyman 'grass centered on the usual themes: love, faith, and the road. If you're a fan of the genre, nothing here should stick in your craw, but you may only find one or two tracks of particular note. After a few listens, I tend to be drawn mostly to the songs and singing of Tim Stafford, but that's just taste. No one's throwing elbows or chewing scenery here. Nevertheless, "Quarter Moon" is a standout track, with guest Cyndi Wheeler adding crystalline harmonies to Stafford's baritone croon, and takes a lead turn as well. The song has an easy gait and elegant simplicity that sells sentiment like "I hold you in my heart / Close inside yet far apart". Rob Ickes' dobro solo fits in perfectly, just enough ornament to make things interesting but not ostentatious.
Shawn Lane's "Wild Urge to Ramble" follows right after "Moon" with a more rollicking spirit befitting its title-smart sequencing giving the record a nice sense of peaks and valleys. Like many of the songs on Marbletown, troubled relationships are a central theme. Even the best women have a hard time keeping a hold on these good ole boys. Infidelity, fighting, and the irresistible call of the road are constantly pulling lovers apart, and the stories are usually told with a tone of regret. On "Wild Urge" Lane prays "God please forgive me I have strayed enough", and on "Tears Fell on Missouri" a rambler calls the mother of his children to tell her he's got a new love. Ouch! But the mom lays both smack and guilt down by reminding him of his kids and "the day the doctor gave 'em to you / And your tears fell on their face." If the long collective touring lives of Blue Highway can't help but inspire tunes lines like "A wanderin' life is what I have / Comin' in and headin' out / The urge to go is in my blood to stay", hard-won maturity has granted the angels on their shoulders more power than the devils. Philandering always begets shame/loneliness.
The grizzly instrumental track "Three-Finger Jack" shows off Blue Highway's considerable chops, in particular Jason Burleson's banjo. As elsewhere, the production is spotless and as straightforward as it gets. No bum notes, no bad timing, no cracks, no chinks in the armor. That kind of sonic perfection can make the atmosphere a little thick and unyielding at times, like watching a major league pitcher in the middle of a no-hitter-that same slow, patient type of excitement that comes from watching pros unwilling to compromise, to give it anything but the best they know how.