Blue Highway keeps the wheels rollin’
After giving notice of his resignation to his boss, singer-fiddler Alison Krauss, Tim Stafford figured his musical future was in a small-time, local bluegrass band. Stafford had just become a father; he was weary from 340 nights on the road he had spent the previous year as a member of Krauss’ band, Union Station. And with an advanced degree in history, Stafford had an eye on a less peripatetic job on the faculty of East Tennessee State, near his home in Kingsport.”I figured I’d put a band together at some point if I could get some local players together,” said Stafford, who had earned a Grammy Award for Krauss’ 1992 record “Every Time You Say Goodbye,” before he parted ways with Union Station that same year. “But the high-caliber players spoiled me. It’s fun playing in local groups, but it’s not going to be the same quality as Alison’s group.”Stafford did form a local band. Fortunately, the locale in question was Kingsport, a town in the Appalachian Mountain near the crossroads of Kentucky, North Carolina and southwest Virginia. In other words, the heart of bluegrass country. Kingsport was home to Doyle Lawson, singer with the Country Gentlemen, and Stafford remembers how the Country Gentlemen bus would park in front of his middle school. (Lawson’s mother lived in an apartment below the school.) So Stafford was hardly scraping the bottom of the barrel in putting together his local outfit, Blue Highway, in 1994.
Stafford’s first recruit was bassist Wayne Taylor, who Stafford had interviewed for a story he wrote in the trade journal Bluegrass Unlimited. Taylor, whose songs are a foundation of the Blue Highway repertoire, is credited as a co-founder of the band. The two landed a top neighborhood picker in mandolinist Shawn Lane, who had played in bands led by Lawson and Ricky Skaggs. Dobroist Rob Ickes, who had already been preparing to move from California to Nashville, was drafted into the group. Banjoist Jason Burleson, an original member who returned to the band in 2000, was also a local product, hailing from Newland, N.C., just over the Tennessee border.Even with the high level of talent, Stafford envisioned Blue Highway as a part-time, close-to-home project. The quintet’s first gig, on New Year’s Eve 1994-95, was in Kingsport. But when the band released its first album, the prophetically titled “It’s a Long, Long Road,” in 1995, the horizons grew larger. The debut recording earned album of the year honors from the International Bluegrass Music Association. That was one of several considerations that forced the members to reconsider their status as part-timers.”We got a lot of bookings. Wayne lost his job. I was only teaching part time at the university, in the bluegrass program,” said Stafford by phone. “So we had to make a decision.”
The decision was to take Blue Highway as far down the road as it could go. The members all gave up their other major commitments. And as the popularity and awards piled up – emerging artist of the year in 1998, honors as best guitarist for Stafford and best dobroist for Ickes – the band has found that it could be have the best of both worlds. Blue Highway plays primarily on weekends, and never embarks on extended tours. Yet they have released six albums and are a featured act at the biggest bluegrass venues; tonight, March 18, they make their Aspen debut in the Wheeler Opera House’s Beyond Bluegrass Festival of Acoustic Music. It’s not quite the local act that Stafford was seeking a decade ago; he laughs when I ask him if it’s the part-time project he had in mind.”It’s definitely a full-time thing, and has been for six years,” he said. “The goal has been to play less shows and get more money, and we’ve been able to do that for five years. We’re not going to be road dogs. We’d rather do it at our own pace.”Stafford hasn’t had to lower his artistic standards to do so. The band’s albums are textbook examples of neotraditional bluegrass. And while Blue Highway doesn’t venture far from the path laid out by Bill Monroe, they find various corners of the genre to explore. The band’s last album, 2003’s “Wondrous Love,” was their first all-gospel recording, featuring tunes by Monroe (“Wicked Path of Sin”) and A.P. Carter (“Live on Down the Line”), as well as original songs by Stafford and Lane, and by Taylor, who contributes the excellent story-song “Seven Sundays in a Row.”
With its next CD, the band expands further. “Marbletown,” due for release next month, takes its name from the title track, a cover of the Mark Knopfler tune. Where “Wondrous Love” was produced by a straight-up bluegrasser, the Nashville Bluegrass Band’s Alan O’Bryant, “Marbletown” is produced by Scott Rouse, a Nashvillian who has worked with the Backstreet Boys and the Charlie Daniels Band. Rouse mixed drums into several tracks, an indication of Blue Highway’s stretching their bounds.”Scott’s well-known for the groove-grass sound,” said Stafford. “So there’s drums. Not enough to offend the hard-core bluegrass people, but enough to jazz up some of the tunes. And the arrangements are really interesting.”Stewart Oksenhorn’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org
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