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New label + new member + new disc = more success for Blue Highway

By Jon Weisberger, July 1999

From the moment Tom Adams' sparkling banjo picking kicks off the first song on Blue Highway's new CD, it's clear that something is different for the bluegrass band. "We're real proud of this record," says guitarist Tim Stafford. "I think it's our best one by far. It's the first one with Tom Adams."

The addition of the top-notch banjo player, who logged considerable time with the Johnson Mountain Boys in the 1980's and the Lynn Morris Band earlier this decade, is only one of several changes for Blue Highway.

Their self-titled CD also marks their debut on Ceili Records, the label bluegrass superstar Ricky Skaggs set up last year as part of an ambitious plan to remake the business end of the music.

"I can't say enough good things about the whole organization," Stafford enthuses. "The way Ricky put it to us was that there's a door opening for bluegrass and acoustic music, and he didn't want to go through it by himself. He wanted to take some people with him. That's hard to turn down, when somebody of that stature says something like that."

Of course, Blue Highway isn't exactly starting out from scratch when it comes to building its audience. The band - Stafford, bassist Wayne Taylor, mandolin/fiddle player Shawn Lane, award-winning dobroist Rob Ickes and then-banjo player Jason Burleson - made one of the biggest debuts of the decade with its first album for Rebel.

1995's "It's A Long, Long Road," which won the International Bluegrass Music Association's Album Of The Year award, and the band itself took the Emerging Artist Of The Year honor, following up with Best Gospel Recorded Performance Of The Year in 1997 for "God Moves In A Windstorm" from their second Rebel release.

Their final album for the label, 1998's "Midnight Storm," did well at Americana radio, an important step in bringing their distinctive sound to new audiences.

Still, Stafford feels that moving to Ceili offers some big advantages. "Ricky and (his partner) Stan Strickland really have some ideas about the way that the record business ought to run that I think are dead-on, and already they're starting to cause waves. More competition is always good, and we've been kind of used to doing things the same way in bluegrass for a number of years. So I think they're putting in some much-needed new blood and some new business practices, too, to stir the pot," he says.

Ceili's plans for promoting the new album include possible television advertising and special attention to Christian stores.

The bottom line, though, is always the music, and the CD takes advantage of the new blood offered by Adams, the band's already strong songwriting skills - seven of the new songs are from band members - and the talents of a couple of stellar guests, including Stafford's former bandmate Alison Krauss and country star Lee Ann Womack, to present an exciting update of Blue Highway's already mature, distinctive sound.

Adams joined the band last year, when original banjo player Burleson decided he'd had enough of the road.

"I made a list of people," Stafford recalls, "and put the word out here and there, and I had several people call me, and I called several others. On the same day I put Tom on the list to call, he called me; it was like ESP. Tom's just such a versatile player. He took the effort to learn all of Jason's breaks note for note, but now when he does them he does them his own way because we've kind of encouraged him to do that. We want him to be Tom Adams."

The result tempers the band's often Stanley-sounding vocal arrangements and material with an additional measure of Scruggs-style drive, best heard on the uptempo burner, "Lonesome Hearted Blues," but felt throughout the project.

The songs reflect the interests and concerns of the band's members - especially those they've written. As always, the band distinguishes itself with material that looks beyond the love songs that are such a staple of country music styles.

"That Could Be You," written by Taylor, contemplates the elements of fate that separate the homeless from those next to them, while "Father I Know Why," one of two gospel songs Lane contributed, takes the unusual step of speaking from the viewpoint of Jesus himself.

"It seems that our albums are strongest when we write more of the material," Stafford reflects, "because it just puts our stamp on it. And I really like that part of it; I think doing original material is one of the more satisfying things you can do because when you work it out, you've got nothing to go on, so your arrangements have got to be original, and you don't end up copying anybody. But it's difficult to write on the road, unless you've got a couple of days' layover. Then it seems like people start pulling out their songs they've been working on, and that's how we end up writing together."

"A lot of times what'll happen when we start putting a record together, whoever has been working on something will bring it in, and that's when we find out who's got what," he laughs. "We had no idea about these two songs Wayne had until he brought them to the session, and we had no idea about Shawn's 'Near The Gate' until we started looking for material. So that's just the way it works. It's kind of been an unorganized thing, but I get the feeling it's going to be more organized in the future."

Womack's participation in the album - she sings harmony on "Father I Know Why" - was another Ceili bonus.

"Dolly Parton was going to record it, but she had some trouble with her voice the week we did it, so we thought of Lee Ann, and she was in town, and Ricky had helped her out before, so it worked out well. He knows so many people like that. That's such a big asset."

In the case of Krauss, Stafford says, "Her voice really fit that song, and I then called Alison to see if she would do 'That Could Be You,' and she just hopped over and did it."

The result is an album that is, as Stafford says, the band's strongest yet. Given their position stature as a top draw and perennial radio favorites, it's hard to believe the band is not yet five years old. With a new banjo player, a new label and the busy pens of three of the five members, the prospects are bright for Blue Highway.

"We're really proud of this album," Stafford concludes. "Good things are starting to happen."