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Blue Highway chugs along

By John Lupton, February 2008

With the release of their eighth album, "Through The Window Of A Train," Blue Highway's Tim Stafford reflects back to their 1995 Rebel debut and says it's been a long but rewarding journey for the Tennessee-based bluegrass quintet.

"We feel like (the new disc is) one of our best records...The group's matured, we're 14 years older than we were when we did 'It's A Long, Long Road', and our themes are a little more mature now than they were back then...our songs have grown up a little bit with us, as we have."

Remarkably, the personnel has remained virtually constant throughout nearly a decade and a half: Stafford (guitar), Wayne Taylor (bass), Shawn Lane (mandolin), Rob Ickes (Dobro) and Jason Burleson (banjo).

Though Burleson left for a brief time in the late 1990s, replaced by Tom Adams, he returned in 2000. When pressed for the secret to the longevity and stability that escapes so many other bands, Stafford points to a variety of factors, but hints that more than anything, it's the unique blend of their individual personalities combined with the willingness to let the band be what it is and let the music take them where it will.

"I wish I could say," Stafford relates from his home in Kingsport, in the far eastern reaches of Tennessee. "I think it's just a combination of not working too much and maybe, you know, just taking it seriously, but not as seriously as some groups...it's always been laid back with us."

Each of the five has an interesting story leading up to the band's 1994 formation, and though they've functioned as a loose democracy all along, it was Stafford who originally pulled the group together.

As the 1990s began, he was in his early thirties and found himself in what was, as was evident even back then, a dream gig holding down the guitar slot in Alison Krauss' band, Union Station as she gathered momentum toward the stardom that soon awaited her. With a young family to raise, though, Stafford was looking to spend more time at home.

"I left Alison and wanted to spend some time off the road in '92. Then...early in '93, I went out to Los Angeles with Alison and (Union Station) for the Grammys. They wanted me to come, and so I did. They tried to get me to rejoin the group. I thought seriously about it because I'd had a little trouble getting a decent job, to be honest. I was going to go back to graduate school, and (they) wouldn't accept me without taking a bunch of classes...so I never went back to finish the (history) degree, and I thought about going back with (Alison), but I never did do it."

The idea of getting together a more or less "part-time" band began to form in his mind.

"I had a 2-year-old when (Blue Highway) started. He's 16 now, and I didn't want to play as much as I did with Alison. That's the reason I left her group... I thought well, maybe I could put together a part-time group just to keep my bluegrass habit up - 'cause you know, once you get that thing in your blood, it's kinda hard to get it out - and I thought well, there's great musicians in this area."

Referring to Taylor, Stafford says, "I had done an article on the group he was in, and I thought, man, if that guy ever leaves that group, he'd be the guy I'd want to get to start a group with. Sure enough, he did, and in January of '94, I saw him at SPBGMA, and he said, 'I'm not playing with anybody,' and I said, 'Well, let's start us a group.' "

"And that's when it all started. We started casting around to see who was available, and Shawn Lane called me out of the blue. He hadn't heard about this band, but he wanted to know what I was doing because he was gonna quit (Ricky) Skaggs' group so he could go back to school. He was wanting to settle down in South Carolina where his future wife was from. He was already dating her."

"And then I called Rob Ickes, and he just happened to be moving to Nashville, and I had met him when I was in Alison's band. The last piece was the banjo player, and we...auditioned Jason twice, actually, and we auditioned four or five other banjo players that we thought were gonna play with us, and eventually we came back to Jason...He's a valuable guy to have in a group because he's versatile, he can play mandolin and guitar as well as he can banjo. We had our first show New Year's Eve of '94."

"Now, we've got three guys in the band that have kids that are eight years or younger, so there's still a priority to not play as much. We're not going to be out on the road 300 days a year. So, our emphasis has been on playing less and just picking better gigs and hopefully making more money with the fewer shows. We've been able to pull that off the last few years. We had our best year last year."

"Through The Window Of A Train" exemplifies all the elements that have made Blue Highway one of the most successful bands on the circuit.

All five are virtuoso instrumentalists (Ickes makes just about everybody's list of the top resophonic players in the world), the arrangements and vocals are superior, and Stafford, Taylor and Lane form a powerful trio of writers that provide most of the material - though Stafford agrees that they don't collaborate as much as they used to.

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