Blue Highway

By Tom Netherland

Bristol, Va.—Down the hall, inside a curio cabinet within the suburban home of Wayne Taylor rests an award for Album Of The Year from the International Bluegrass Music Association (IBMA). That award sealed the fate for Blue Highway as a full-time recording and touring band. “At the IBMAs in ’96, I thought we had a chance to win Emerging Artist, but man, when we won Album Of The Year, it blew us away,” Taylor said. “That first album pretty much paved the way for everything else that’s happened since.”

Hurricane Reign?

   First came Blue Highway’s formation, the germ of which began about four years beforehand. “The first time I ever saw Wayne was when he was in the Tim Laughlin Band in about 1992 or so,” Tim Stafford recalled. “I was impressed with his bass playing. He wasn’t flashy, but he knew timing.” Fresh from winning a Grammy with (and exiting from) Alison Krauss’ Union Station, Stafford later found himself in Nashville and, again, in the company of Taylor. Somewhat renowned throughout Southwest Virginia and Northeast Tennessee’s local bluegrass circle by then, Taylor worked by day as a driver of a coal truck and played bluegrass whenever time afforded the opportunity. Upon discovery of considerable common musical ground, Stafford and Taylor devised a group.

“Tim and I talked about putting some local musicians together and just playing around home, maybe do an album,” Taylor said. “Shawn Lane was the first guy to come on board. Then Rob Ickes came on with us and then Jason Burleson.” Upon agreement of a band to be, other than a bluegrass agenda, the band had nothing by way of a blueprint for the future. They simply wanted to play music as best they could.

“We didn’t have all of these big plans and goals,” Lane says. “We just love music—a lot of the same types of music. I don’t think it would have lasted a long time if we had it all written down and structured. It’s one day at a time for all of us. We just let it happen like it’s supposed to happen.”

After rounds of rehearsals and auditions, Jason Burleson rounded out the band’s lineup. As with Lane, he brought capabilities on several instruments including banjo, mandolin, and guitar. Burleson auditioned twice. The first round didn’t go as well as either he or the band had hoped. “I had a bad banjo,” Burleson said. “So, I bought an Earl Scruggs banjo in Bristol, Tennessee, from Mack Blevins, which I used in the second audition. They said we were going to have a band picture taken in Johnson City. They said, ‘Can you be there?’ I figured I was in the band.”

What to name the band? A list emerged with a litany of wide-ranging names including the following: Bristol City Limits, Bluegrass Heartland, The Bluegrass Company, State Street, State Line, Winston Alley, Bluegrass Coalition, Grapes On The Vine, Grand Highway, Contemporary Classic, South by Southwest, Appalachian Coalition, Appalachian Alliance, General Store, Picket Fence, Big Train, Blue Water, and Hurricane Reign.

“I had gone to IBMA in October of 1994,” said Stafford. “I took a demo tape that we did. It didn’t even have Jason on it. Tony Brown played banjo on it. We were called Hurricane Reign. I gave one tape to Dave Freeman (Rebel Records) and one to Ken Irwin (Rounder Records). Dave called me and said he liked it. We signed a contract with Rebel before we even did a show.”

Blue Highway

   They changed the band name later, and Blue Highway played its first of several thousand shows on December 31, 1994. No album, but a handful of songs rattled from their quiver, and the enthusiasm brimmed among the eager group of bluegrass veterans. “Our first show was in Kingsport, Tennessee,” Tim recalled. “Then, I know we played in January at the Down Home in Johnson City, Tennessee. That was our second show. I’m pretty sure we recorded the album before that Down Home show.”

Yet even after its recording contract, initial sessions, and shows, Taylor still retained his seat behind the wheel of a coal truck. He eventually clocked 18 years amid the cab of a truck in Buchanan County, Va., before parking those wheels and joining Blue Highway full-time. “We went into the studio and cut the only 12 songs that we knew,” Wayne said. “I wrote ‘Lonesome Pine’ before I was in Blue Highway. The band I was in, the Richlands Bluegrass Boys, were doing a lot of cover songs. I thought, ‘That won’t get me anywhere.’ So, I wrote ‘Lonesome Pine.’ It was either the first or second song I ever wrote.”

“Lonesome Pine”

   As distinctive as a baby’s cry, Taylor’s voice can transport listeners to times and places and people, long gone by. When he emotes “Lonesome Pine,” they return home. “His lead singing is a marvel,” Stafford said. “He has one of the most natural voices I’ve ever heard. It’s God-given. I felt like from the minute I heard Wayne singing Jack Tottle’s ‘It’s A Long, Long Road’ in the studio—man, this could be great. When we started, Wayne was writing more than the rest of us. By the third album, we were writing most of our stuff.”

One month before the release of their first album, Blue Highway took to the road for their first extended tour of personal appearances. All five members and Lane’s wife Gracie piled into their 1992 Dodge van and navigated West for a three-week trek that ran from Dallas, Tex., at the Ozona Grill on June 4, 1995 through June 24 in Rapid City, S.D. By night, they all squeezed into and slept in the same room to save what little money they made from each performance. “Looking back, I don’t know how we did it,” Stafford said. “We booked all the shows ourselves. We got the gigs for just gas expenses and a motel room every night.”

The fellows remember little pay and little profit. Gracie, remembers something else. “We were so cramped. In the motel room at night, Shawn and I would sleep in one corner of the room, while the guys found their own corners. Oh, and they snored so loudly!” Upon recollection, Shawn laughed and added, “Man, there was no break! That snoring was like a big D9 Caterpillar dozer going on every night. We just didn’t have the money for more than one motel room.”

Blue Highway’s first album It’s A Long, Long Road debuted on July 4, 1995. Bluegrass fans responded in wild fashion as the album catapulted to number one and earned the band its first IBMA awards for Album Of The Year and Emerging Artist Of The Year in 1996. Also that year, Rob Ickes won his first of a record 15 IBMA awards for his resonator guitar playing. “When that record was number one, I was working at a used-car lot, reconditioning cars for a friend of mine,” Taylor recalled with a mix of disbelief and wonder.

“Some Day

   By 1998’s Midnight Storm album, day jobs were a thing of the past for Stafford, Taylor, Lane, Ickes, and Burleson. Then, as now, they maintain side gigs, session work, co-writing pow-wows and so forth, but Blue Highway was swimming well on its own by the end of the last century. As the band broadened its scope, songs reflected their widening range. Take for instance “Some Day,” the third track on Midnight Storm. Credits indicate that Stafford co-wrote the song with Olive Stockton.

“She had written poems that had been published in a paper in Ohio,” according to Stafford. “This was a handwritten note. She said it was her eulogy. I was blown away by it—sort of stunned. I pulled it out of my guitar case on the road in South Dakota, and said this would make a great song. I sang the melody, and that’s the melody we kept. It knocked me out. It was done at George Shuffler’s funeral. It touches me whenever somebody tells me they used it at a funeral or a wake. It’s pretty humbling that I had any role in it at all.”

“Goodbye For A While”

   Three years after Midnight Storm, out came Blue Highway’s revelatory Still Climbing Mountains album. Each member contributed at least one song, but it was perhaps the album’s last song that struck most profoundly. Penned by Lane, “Goodbye For A While” features the lengths to which the band can stretch, as reflected by the song’s folk-like feel.

“I was at my grandmother’s funeral,” Lane said. “I wrote it after seeing my grandfather hurt so much. They were married for about 65 years. The preacher who preached my maw-maw’s funeral told the family that it’s not goodbye. It’s goodbye for a while. I thought that was profound. Songs…I think they’re a gift.” On the heels of Still Climbing Mountains, they won IBMA’s Vocal Group Of The Year in 2012.

Heart and Highway

   Twenty-two years after they first performed, Taylor closed his eyes and sang “Lonesome Pine” on a rainy night in Chesterfield, Va., last fall when he became a member of the Virginia Country Music Hall Of Fame. By then, a year and a life had whisked by for him as if he clung to a Texas twister. Even now, the memories linger / My mama’s smile so soft and warm, Taylor sang that night just as he has on countless nights. Lonesome pine calling me home. An ovation welcomed Taylor as he sang. They knew that he had come perilously close to being called home. He simply smiled through closed eyes amid the resonance of his bluegrass loving heart.

In January, while seated in his home, Taylor didn’t move while a twinkle of a star danced in his eyes. He’s 62. He cast a look across the room at the award on the wall, looked over his shoulder at the framed Bluegrass Unlimited covers and golden medallions that signify the band’s Grammy nominations. A comfy brown chair sits just below the framed declaration of Taylor’s induction. Almost exactly five months before he was cast into music immortality and while seated in that chair, Taylor’s heart betrayed him on May 11, 2016. The heart attack earned Taylor quadruple bypass surgery on May 18.

Original Traditional

   Three months passed. Taylor returned to the stage and the road with Blue Highway last August. By then, recording sessions had completed for the group’s latest album Original Traditional, released on Rounder Records in September. In December, the album earned the band their third Grammy nomination. “It’s something we were really wanting,” Stafford said. “We had a rough year—Shawn Lane’s dad (ill health), Wayne’s heart attack, Rob Ickes leaving the band. The Grammy nomination came at the best possible time.”

After 23 years of cramped vans, cheap food, endless highways, and ribbons of darkness amid a dozen albums of bluegrass art, Blue Highway earned their third and perhaps most apropos Grammy nod. As they have for decades, they perform and compose knee-buckling songs of life sandwiched in substance and bluegrass extravagance. Now that warrants a Grammy nod.

Though largely intact for the bulk of the band’s tenure, Blue Highway’s lineup encountered a shakeup last fall. Rob Ickes, the band’s 15-time IBMA Dobro Player Of The Year, left the band. Gaven Largent, a 19-year-old phenom, replaced him. “He’s put some fire under us,” said Lane. “He’s added a spark. He’s way, way beyond his years.”

Hear Largent’s inferno on Original Traditional. Their first since 2014’s The Game, the album leans toward a more pronounced traditional bluegrass style. “I’ll guarantee it,” said Stafford. “It doesn’t sound like the Stanley Brothers. It doesn’t sound like Flatt & Scruggs. It doesn’t sound like Bill Monroe. It’s us, but in that vein.”

As with Blue Highway’s two decades of albums, the album charts new territory for the band. They’ve never stopped, planted stakes, and lived for long within one particular twist or another. Ultimately, it’s about the song for this band on the run. “Kim Williams, Larry Shell, and I wrote one called ‘Water From The Stone,’” said Wayne. “It’s a song that can bring you to tears. It conjures up those feelings. It’s got an almost traditional-country feel. The album is getting back to our roots a little bit. I’m tickled with it.”

Recorded at Bobby Starnes’ studio in Johnson City, Tenn., the album features a litany of traditions long held within bluegrass. In addition to the aforementioned country-tinged song, there’s a driving instrumental, a shape note a cappella gospel song, and a folk-driven ballad. “There’s one song that Bobby Starnes and I wrote called ‘The Wilkes County Clay,’ about the true story of Tom Dooley,” Stafford explained. “It’s sort of in a minor key and it’s kind of mournful.”

Shawn Lane picks up the mournful tone on a song that he and his brother contributed to the album. “It’s called ‘Top Of The Ridge,’ and it’s really sparse,” Shawn said. “It’s a mournful song, in a reflective zone. I’m singing lead on it. My brother, Chad, sings tenor on the song. He came in and just slayed it.”

Into the Future

   Some fans and observers have long wondered why Blue Highway have not recorded more studio albums in their career. For instance, their totals dwarf alongside the discography of the late Ralph Stanley. However, consider the band as a whole. Taylor released a solo album It’s About Time in August of 2012. Ickes recorded an album Trio Dobro in 2012 with Jerry Douglas and the late Mike Auldridge. Stafford and Steve Gulley issued a duet album Dogwood Winter in 2010. Burleson and Lane each have albums to their credit, while Lane has several albums planned for the near future.

“I’m in the middle of a couple of albums,” Lane said. “I’m doing a solo thing that features Gracie. It’s rock-hard bluegrass. We’re going to do a Christmas record, which probably won’t be ready this Christmas, but will for Christmas 2018. I’ve got a bunch of originals for that. One is called ‘It’s All For You.’ It’s based around the meaning of Christmas, which gets pushed aside too much. The Christmas album is not extremely bluegrass. It covers a lot of ground.” In addition to that, Lane worked with engineer friend Brad Poore, with whom he markets the I-Tone Pick, designed from space-age materials. “It’s unbelievable, the tone and the clarity,” Lane says of his I-Tone Pick, which he plays and sells at all Blue Highway shows.

Also, Jason Burleson plays and publicizes his own signature banjo with Prucha Bluegrass Instruments, based in the Czech Republic. That Blue Highway can forge ground as a band and as individuals beyond their group indicates an outfit that’s as strong as Lane’s pick. No one leads. No one dictates. From singing to songwriting to sharing the challenges and the accolades, they all participate. “It’s a democracy,” Stafford said. “We all have a stake in it. I guarantee you that if one of us had been the bossman, it would have ended several years ago.”

The bossman model worked for Bill Monroe. The late Jimmy Martin followed suit with his band, the Sunny Mountain Boys. Tight ships both, Monroe and Martin were captains in their domain. Blue Highway’s modus operandi? According to Stafford, “Don’t take it too seriously. We don’t sweat it. We just feel like it’s gonna work out.”

Indeed. Chances they’ve taken include their cover of Mark Knopfler’s song “Marbletown” in 2005, which earned the band their second Grammy nomination. Their 2003 gospel album Wondrous Love garnered Blue Highway’s first Grammy nomination. Stafford and Taylor attended the Grammy Awards in Los Angeles when Wondrous Love nearly won during what amounted to a string of pinch-me moments for Taylor.

“I’m sitting in the stands,” he says. “This blonde-haired woman walked down front, waving at people. I thought, ‘She looks like Madonna.’ Well, that was Madonna. There was a guy sitting right in front of us. Well, that was Rick James. We got to see Prince perform ‘Purple Rain.’ We got to see Paul McCartney. How often to you get to see a Beatle? Quentin Tarantino was sitting across the aisle from us. The Grammys are real special. It’s ‘The Oscars’ of the music industry.”

Last year’s Original Traditional notched their third Grammy bid. While Blue Highway has yet to win a Grammy, ask most anyone of note in bluegrass—including Ricky Skaggs—and responses to such honors amount to well-earned recognition. “Totally professional, totally great musicians and songwriters,” Skaggs said. “Tim is a great songwriter. Wayne is a great songwriter. Shawn is a great songwriter. They have their own sound. They sound old, yet fresh, all through their sound. They’re great. I love those guys like brothers—really proud of what they’ve achieved.”

Those achievements are the products of night-to-night concerts for fans who love them. On a warm night in small-town America early this spring, Blue Highway notched another show in a string of shows that tally 23 years and running. Their second of the day in a cobbling of their first-ever fan appreciation shows, they performed sets of songs that played like chimes on the welcoming porch of a loving home.

Fans cheer as the band speeds even farther along into the unknown horizon of shows that link into one long and winding highway. They’ve hosted concerts throughout America and abroad to such locales as The Czech Republic, Japan, Ireland, France, England, and Switzerland. Not even Ickes’ exit could derail Blue Highway from its uncharted course into the annals of music history. “When he said he was leaving, the first guy I thought about was Gaven Largent,” Burleson said. “He was playing banjo with Michael Cleveland. About two or three songs in (to his audition), we knew he was the perfect fit. Shawn said, ‘I don’t think we need to look any further.’”

“We take things as they come,” Burleson said. “I consider all of the guys—Rob included—my brothers and always will. It’s like a family. We go by majority rules, so there’s never a tie vote. Everybody has an equal say in this band.”

While Blue Highway doesn’t typically map its future, several possibilities could flourish during the coming months. For one, a gospel album could be in the offering somewhere down the road. For another, they recorded a pair of fan appreciation concerts in Emory, Va., in April that may lead to a live album. “I’m for another gospel album,” Stafford said. “We’ve talked about that. It’s probably overdue. Wondrous Love was one of our best-selling records. As for a live album, I think it will come out. It’s a work in progress. There’s a chance we’ll get it out next year.”

Wisdom from ancient Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu may best explain Blue Highway’s unconventional though steady journey: Of all that is good, sublimity is supreme. Succeeding is the coming together of all that is beautiful. Furtherance is the agreement of all that is just. Perseverance is the foundation of all actions.

Bound as a family whose ties belie DNA, Blue Highway carry forth like hitchhikers amid their own galaxy. They trust each other, maintain faith in God and direction, love their fans, adore their music, and haven’t a clue as to when and where the highway will eventually end. “Is this really the life I’ve led?” Taylor asked. “It’s the life you dream about having. I’m the luckiest man in the world. Thank you God. What have I done to deserve this?”

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