"We've done gospel material in our shows from the very beginning, which is a long tradition in bluegrass," says Tim Stafford, Blue Highway's versatile singer-guitarist, by phone from his home in Kingsport, Tenn. "We get a lot of attention from our a cappella numbers and won an award several years back from the IBMA (International Bluegrass Music Association) for a song we had on one of our records that was a gospel number."
Consequently, ever-inquisitive bluegrass fans wondered aloud when this band with the growing following was going to record an all-gospel album. Unlike much of today's country musicians who have long since forsaken gospel albums (note the exception of Randy Travis), it's not only a part of, but also an expected part of being a bluegrass musician.
"We had a lot of people come up to the (merchandise) tables and ask, 'where's the gospel record at?' 'Well, we don't have one.' 'You need to do one.' So, we just decided we were at the point where we needed to do it," Stafford says. "We had thought about doing a gospel album I guess after our third record 'cause we had so many requests for it. We were still on Rebel Records. That was about the time that Ricky Skaggs approached us about being on his label (Ceili Music), and he wanted the first one to be a bluegrass record. So we did that ("Blue Highway"), and then we ended up leaving that label - not anything to do with Ricky. Then when we went with Rounder. Of course, they didn't want our first record with them to be a gospel record, so we finally decided here's our chance."
Fans of Blue Highway are the benefactors. Stewed with a mix of originals like Stafford's cleverly titled "The Ground is Level at the Foot of the Cross" and Jimmy Martin and Paul Williams' "This World is Not My Home," their first foray into gospelgrass comes up smelling like a field full of roses.
Short range, such albums rarely outsell a band's secular output. Long range, just ask Doyle Lawson which sells more for him, gospel or secular bluegrass. Gospel albums tend to have more long-lasting staying power under the bluegrass umbrella.
"They tend to be," Stafford says. "I remember talking to Doyle Lawson when he just put out 'Rock My Soul,' which was his first gospel record, and he said, 'this record, I'm sure will be our best seller.' Sure enough, it's been the best seller he's ever put out. He told me recently that his gospel recordings outsell his other records two to one."
It's wide open to conjecture as to why that's the case.
"It's just a big part of the tradition," Stafford says. "There's a hundred different kinds of gospel music, too. That's what I like about it."
A cappella remains one of the more popular forms of gospel music. Blue Highway included two such songs on "Wondrous Love," including a song from Stafford's pen, "Chasing After the Wind."
"I wasn't really sure when I wrote it how it should go," Stafford says in his distinctly East Tennessee accent. "It became an a cappella thing over time I reckon. It took a little while to flesh that one out." ' Then there's the song's arrangement of vocals. All five members of Blue Highway take different vocal parts. Stafford sings lead, Wayne Taylor sings seconds lead, Shawn Lane aims high on tenor, Rob Ickes maintains the middle ground on baritone and Jason Burleson dips low on bass.
Result? Vocal gymnastics from a band that knows how to swing around the microphone. Such songs are not always easy to nail.
"I think the a cappella tunes give you very little room for error 'cause you're stuck out there naked. You're voices are out there, and there's no place to hide," Stafford says. "When we sing 'em we sing 'em around one mike, but when we recorded those songs we did 'em around different mikes, so that was a little harder. I'd say overall it's easier to do the ones with music."
Most folks perhaps do not realize just how difficult nailing vocal harmonies can prove to be. Imagine three, four and sometimes five voices attempting to harmonize both in key and in tune. It's not easy, folks.
"Shoot no. It's easier the more you do it with people you're familiar with," Stafford says. "Like Wayne and Shawn, now I know where I can fit in that pocket, and I'll get a buzz going with their vocal blend. I can do that with them, whereas with somebody else it will take a little time."
That's why family harmonies almost always prove the most precise and powerful of them all. Give a whirl to a Louvin Brothers record sometime.
"You can't beat that. There's a genetic thing there happening that you can't reproduce," Stafford says.