Blue Highway performed its first gig on New Year’s Eve in 1994 with its original lineup that includes the same consummate musicians that comprise the band today: Tim Stafford (guitar), Wayne Taylor (bass), Shawn Lane (mandolin, fiddle, guitar), Jason Burleson (banjo, guitar, mandolin), and Rob Ickes (Dobro, lap steel). Tim, Wayne and Shawn provide the vocals. Their early years found them associated with the reputable Rebel record label. In 1996, Blue Highway won an IBMA award for “Emerging Artist of the Year.” In 1996 and 2006, they were recognized with IBMA “Album of the Year” awards. In 1997 and 2004, they won IBMA awards for “Gospel Recording of the Year.” What a treat to hear a band with such a stable and solid lineup so full of talent! The internationally-renown quintet has now been associated with Rounder Records for over a decade.
Over the years, Blue Highway has carved out their niche in bluegrass. Their musical vision has always incorporated accessible melodies, bright lyricism, and interesting dynamics. “Sounds of Home” is noteworthy for its all-original emphasis, with the exception of the public domain cover “Nobody’s Fault but Mine.” Taylor, Stafford and Lane’s songwriting abilities are showcased. Burleson also penned a snappy instrumental “Roaring Creek.” The band’s considerable emotional depth shines through on moving songs like “Storm” and “Drinking from a Deeper Well.” The former has us looking inward “to see the dawn when the storm is gone.” The sorrow of a generic mining disaster is captured in the mournful ¾-time “Only Seventeen.” Every band has a few unique signature arrangements we have become accustomed to, and Shawn Lane’s solo vocalizing on “I Ain’t Gonna Lay My Hammer Down” is an example that opens the album. One thing I miss here is a Wayne Taylor/Shawn Lane brother-style duet, as well as a Bluegrass Highway a cappella vocal arrangement typical of some we’ve heard on previous releases. But it always delights me when they use solid tried-and-true traditional messages to craft contemporary songs like “Bluebird Days” and “Restless Working Man.” No Blue Highway album would be complete without a solid story song, and they masterfully fill that slot with “Heather and Billy,” co-penned by Tim Stafford with Steve Gulley, about a couple with a great amount of love and compassion for children in need. Their musicality and approach are simply able to covey many aesthetic moods, along with considerable respect and depth.
Blue Highway boasts an impressive track record as a contemporary bluegrass band, and the musicians individually as award-winners. They’ve released ten highly-acclaimed albums, been nominated for two Grammy awards (in 2004 and 2005), topped the Bluegrass Unlimited chart, won a Dove Award in 2004 for “Best Bluegrass Album” (“Wondrous Love”) and taken home over a dozen IBMA and SPBGMA awards (either as a band or individually).
“Sounds of Home” illustrates why Blue Highway has a well-deserved reputation as one of the most lauded groups in contemporary bluegrass music today due to their brilliant instrumental virtuosity, soaring harmonies, driving rhythms, well-crafted original material, and creative arrangements. (Joe Ross, Roseburg, OR.)