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Blue Highway sings "Sounds of Home"

By John Lupton, September 2011

In a business where "job security" is almost a contradiction in terms and bandleaders have been known to fire sidemen on stage in mid-set, Blue Highway remain the very models of stability and continuity after 10 albums, including the just released "Sounds of Home."

All five original members remain: Tim Stafford (guitar), Wayne Taylor (bass), Shawn Lane (mandolin), Rob Ickes (Dobro) and Jason Burleson (banjo).

While Ickes is originally from the San Francisco Bay are, all of the others are from the nexus where Tennessee, Virginia and North Carolina come together. Taylor had been playing with a number of bands in the region through the 80's and into the 90's.

"Tim had just left Alison Krauss' band," Taylor says, "and he did an article on a band I was playing with...we kind of met like that...I ran into him at SPBGMA in Nashville in, I guess, February of '94, and he asked me 'How's the band going?' and I said, 'Well really, it's not. We're not playing any, and I'm kind of the only guy that's not doing much.' He said, 'Well, I've been kind of thinking about throwing something together with some musician friends from around this area...we've got a lot of good pickers in this area, would you be interested?', and I said, 'yeah, absolutely'. So, it just kind of came together. He said it was gonna be kind of a sideline, weekend thing. He was looking for a full-time job. I actually had a full time job. And then Shawn got in contact with us and said he was interested."

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Ickes had been making a name for himself at the time through his work with high-profile acts like the Lynn Morris Band, and Taylor was surprised when he came on board. "Tim brought Rob's name up. I was a huge fan of Rob's, but I couldn't see him hooking up with a brand new band or anything, but he said he was interested in doing it."

Burleson had filled in with Stafford's previous bands on occasion, went through a couple of auditions, and figured he had the job when he got the call to show up for band photos the next day.

Lane chimes in and says, "Actually, I've been filling in for 17 years," provoking a round of laughter from the others, who are sitting around before playing a Delaware bluegrass festival. Recalling his time in Ricky Skaggs' band in the early '90s, he says, "I was going to school, and I was getting married at the same time, and I just got tired of driving back and forth from Nashville to South Carolina...we played the Opry sometimes during the week, and then we'd have to go out on weekends. We'd play two or three times a week in Nashville...I quit and went back to school and got my degree. I got to wanting to pick again. So, I called Tim to see what he'd been doing because I knew he hadn't been in a band for a while, and he said, 'well, I'm thinking of doing some stuff on the side.'"

"You tell people when it started it was just gonna be a part-time thing - weekend gigs, maybe at some point make a record," Taylor says. "But when we finally made that record (their debut "It's a Long, Long Road" on Rebel) it kind of took off, and we were fortunate enough to get Album of the Year that year, and that kind of jumpstarted everything."

Nine more albums later, "Sounds of Home" finds them still at the top of their game and in continual demand. Their instrumental excellence has been constant throughout, but as many have commented, the evolution and maturation of Stafford, Taylor and Lane as songwriters has driven much of the band's success.

"These guys write such good stuff," says Burleson, "That's one of the things that's fun for me, just waiting to see what they're going to come up with as far as material."

Ickes adds, "I mean, we've had a lot of originals, but the last few records have been pretty much all originals, and when we first started, Wayne (and Tim had written only a couple) on that first album, and then Shawn didn't write at all until the second record, so yeah, that's definitely become more important, more a part of the band's sound over the years."

"When we get together to put a record together, it's usually on the road, and we'll have a day off or something and we'll all get together and sit in a circle and throw out songs, and so we get a big list, and I think the nice thing is that these guys write so much - and some of us will bring in some cover ideas or whatever - but we'll have 20 or 30 songs on that list. So, we can kind of pick the best ones, or the ones that will go together really good."

With the exception of the traditional Nobody's Fault But Mine, all 12 tracks are originals, with the title cut written by Lane.

"I took things from several different places I've lived and put it all into one song," he says. "Things that happened at one house would lead to another house, and I got to thinking about all that. There's a lot more stuff I could put in there. I tried to figure out a way to put how my wife's snores in there..." - at this point his band mates erupt into gales of laughter, but Lane quiets them and continues, "I pitched it when we were doing a compilation record ("Some Day: The 15th Anniversary Collection," Rounder), looking for a new cut...I pitched this for that record, but it just wasn't what we needed, so we just saved it to put on this record."

During their time together on the road and in the studio, the band has seen the highs and lows of the music business up close. The phenomenal success of "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" a decade ago brought tremendous exposure and acclaim to bluegrass that is still being felt. When it's suggested to Stafford that if he had stayed with Krauss, it might have been his voice instead of Dan Tyminski's coming from George Clooney's mouth, he laughs good-naturedly, says "Yeah, I've thought about that, it probably would have sounded like this," and launches into a few bars of Man of Constant Sorrow.

As they get ready to go on stage yet again, though, all five members of Blue Highway are looking ahead to many more years together.

"I hope to be like Ralph Stanley," Burleson says, "I hope when somebody still has to just roll me out on stage and people can look at me while the band's playing around me - that I'll be happy with." Ickes gives him a sly grin and says, "We could try that today."