Rounder Records 11661-9170-2
Once in a while, a band manages to stay together for twenty years without working too much, but just enough to keep it together. Blue Highway is that band, and their new release transcends the boundaries of normality into excellence.
From the gunshot of the first (title) cut through to the shape-note hymn that closes this project, each member expresses himself and reveals a bit of the depth that makes each one an important part of the whole. Truth is just another point of view, a line from “A Change Of Faith In Tennessee,” speaks to the depths dealt with in these songs. The analogy between religious faith and faith in another human is examined, and lines like salvation don’t mean nothing until it is free drive deeper than the surface. There are two instrumentals that conjure up more than bluegrass clichés. There is an old-time sound in Rob Ickes’ resonator guitar and Shawn Lane’s fiddle at the opening of “Funny Farm,” and the band plays it bluegrass, but one is reminded that these two styles are kissing cousins. Likewise, “Dogtown” could be progressive except that it reaches back to move forward. The result is a tune that takes you in like a beguiling siren.
As discussed, the songwriting here is topnotch. It is all about the song and the message. The band thought it important enough to bring in a guest vocalist on “My Last Day In The Mines” to get the sound and feel they wanted. Trey Hensley’s vocal is spot-on for this populist anthem. “All The Things You Do” is another kind of anthem, a memorial for a great songwriter who passed too soon—Harley Allen. The bittersweet tribute to someone who left a wealth of personal belongings, in the form of songs, to the many lives he touched, as those same friends watched the battle with the demons that so often plague the gifted. “Where The Jasmine Grows” is mountain music and Lane’s plaintive vocal cuts to the marrow. “Just To Have A Job” is a song too many folks can relate to today.
This is powerful modern bluegrass—in touch with the past, speaking to the present, and rich enough to last into the future. Each member of this band brings in a thread, and those threads are woven into the fabric that is the sound that makes Blue Highway the lasting force it has proven to be. The angst-filled strains of “Hick’s Farewell” at the album’s close will have you hitting the play button again. (Rounder Records, One Rounder Way, Burlington, MA 01803, www.rounder.com.)RCB