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Blue Highway takes 15 years for "Some Day"

By John Lupton, February 2010

Blue Highway's banjo player Jason Burleson acknowledges that their 1995 debut album "It's A Long, Long Road" turned out to be prophetic. It has been quite a journey for the Tennessee-based band that has become one of the "gold standards" of bluegrass, with 8 more "signpost" albums along the way, the latest being their newly-released 15th Anniversary collection on Rounder, "Some Day."

"It's really," says Burleson, "just a big ‘thank you' to the fans from us... it's rare that a band can make a living at this at all, much less for 15 years and have the fans stick with them and support them."

Following a stint with Alison Krauss in the early 1990s, guitarist Tim Stafford met and hooked up with bass player Wayne Taylor to start a band that would keep their hands in the music while allowing more time with their growing families. Before long, mandolinist Shawn Lane (an alumnus of Ricky Skaggs' band) came aboard and the band acquired the Dobro talents of Rob Ickes, recently transplanted to Nashville from his native California.

Burleson had done some fill-in banjo gigs for one of Stafford's earlier bands, and was interested when the Blue Highway opportunity came around. "We got together one time at Wayne's house...and played some, and I didn't hear anything for a while. Then Tim called me back, we got together again and seems like they said we were having band pictures made the next day. I said, well, I must be part of the band then, if we're gonna have the pictures made."

A decade and a half later, Burleson laughs when it's pointed out that, as the only member who's left the band for any length of time, he gets kidded a bit as the "rookie."

"You know how they put the asterisk beside Barry Bonds' name? They put it beside mine."

"I left in July of 1998," he continues. "I'd just gotten married a couple of months earlier, and we were just really busy at that time and...I really just needed to be at home for a while."

Blue Highway at Glasgow Royal Concert Hall Main Auditorium, Jan. 19, 2010

After Tom Adams (longtime Johnson Mountain Boys and Lynn Morris Band stalwart) took over for a time, "I came back in September of 2000, so I've been back almost 10 years."

In addition to 10 tracks drawn from their 4 previous Rounder releases (following 3 on Rebel and 1 on the Ceili label) and Ickes' solo Rounder disc "Big Time," the new disc includes 2 new originals Cold and Lowdown Lonesome Blues and Bleeding For a Little Peace of Mind as well as a newly redone version of the title track.

"We wanted stuff to flow together to make an album...where you put it in the CD player, and it flows along well and you don't have to jump around to find your favorite tracks or whatever...a lot of it was (songs) we get a lot of requests for at shows. The title track, Some Day was originally recorded on Rebel Records, and Rounder wanted a new version of that, so we redid that in the studio."

This is entirely consistent, Burleson, with how Blue Highway has done things as they've stayed together and matured.

"These days, when we do a record, we'll get together at somebody's house, and we have three really good songwriters in the band (Stafford, Taylor and Lane), so they'll just pass a guitar around and throw out songs that they think might work for the band. We'll do that, and end up with way, way too much original stuff, but we try to pick songs that will fit together as a complete thing for an album, instead of just picking the five or six ‘hottest' or fastest songs. We try to consider all the songs as a complete work for one record."

It's quite a change from the early years, though as he points out, it all turned out pretty well. "When we recorded (‘It's A Long, Long Road'), we had played one show together and got together and practiced maybe two or three times, so we didn't really know each other musically that well at that time. And we had a real small budget, and just went in there, and I think we did the whole thing in four or five days, you know, mixing and everything...but it turned out that that record won a bunch of IBMA awards, and it really kind of got us off the ground. We won Emerging Artist that year (1996), and it won Album of the Year...that's what really got festival promoters interested in booking us for shows. So that album really jump-started us."

The passing years, Burleson continues, have only drawn them closer to each other musically and spiritually.

"We've been together so long that, and I know it sounds like a cliche, but we really are family...Musically, I think we've all become better musicians over the years, and we've just learned how to get along personally and musically. We have disagreements every now and then, but it's always give-and-take, and it's a total democracy, there's a five-way vote on everything we do, and majority rules. If you get outvoted, that's just the way it goes."

Now 42, Burleson is a native (and still resident) of Newland, N.C. in the Blue Ridge/Smokey Mountain Tennessee borderlands that also produced one of the band's more noted fans, Doc Watson. His father lost his hearing when Jason was a toddler, yet still encouraged his son to enjoy the "really worn-out and scratchy Flatt and Scruggs records" he had collected, and suggested Jason learn the banjo at the age of 11. The real epiphany came, though, in his early teen years with the 1981 release of the first Bluegrass Album Band LP, an "all-star" project that included J. D. Crowe and Tony Rice.

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