"The thing, I think, that happens is that...when (we) get in off the road, we just don't see each other again until we play. It's not that we're not good friends and don't want to hang out. It's just that we value our time at home, our family time, our 'down' time, and so we just don't see each other that much to get together to write."
"A Week From Today," co-written by Stafford with his regular partner Bobby Starnes, stands out as the sort of intelligent, moving ballad the band's fans have come to love. The story of a lifer about to be released from prison, it features a psychological twist that movie fans of recent times will immediately recognize, though Stafford says it's purely coincidental.
"I wish I could say it came from 'The Shawshank Redemption' because it does sound exactly like the story of the librarian (portrayed in the film by James Whitmore), but I didn't see that movie until after this was written."
"The song actually came from a preacher who was visiting our house...I've gotten a lot of (song) lines from him. He's a good friend of ours. He's moved away now, but he used to come by our house quite a bit, and he was talking to us and he said, 'I've got to leave, I've got to go over to the prison to talk to a fella, to minister to a fella, and it's an unusual case because he's in there for life, but he's gettin' out, and he doesn't want to leave. He says if they let me out I'm gonna go knock over a liquor store or something so I can get back in because this is home to me.'"
"I immediately wrote that down, and it wasn't a line like 'a week from today' that he said, it was the concept of a fellow like that. Bobby Starnes, he likes to take an idea that I have and see how he can move it in different directions. He's a big fan of people like John Prine and Guy Clark, and he was the guy that came up with the line...'four walls and a roof inside your head'. He's very good at that, and that's one reason I like to write with Bobby."
Though pleased with all the songs on the album, he's particularly high on "Sycamore Hollow," written by Lane with Gerald Ellenburg.
"I think Gerald had the melody, and the way Shawn tells the story, that melody just kind of suggested, when he hummed it to Shawn, it just sounded like 'Sycamore Hollow' to him, so that's where they got the name. It's fictional, but it just turned into a Civil War thing the more they got into it...I think it's probably my favorite cut on the record. I really like that song."
Though Stafford founded the band, they've always had a "leaderless" approach to putting their stage and studio work together, relying heavily on the mutual trust and belief in each other's talents and taste to know what works and what doesn't. Though it's a knack they've had from the start, Stafford agrees that 14 years together helps hone things to a fine edge.
"Shawn put it best when he said, 'If you listen to the song close enough, it'll tell you where it wants to go.' A lot of that, I think, informs those things, and we've been doing this so long now, we're kind of all on the same page when it comes to arrangements and kickoffs and things like that. We don't really talk about it much. Somebody might say, 'It would be cool if we did this,' and then if we try it one time we don't ever have to say whether it's cool or not, 'cause if it isn't, it's pretty obvious."
He laughs and continues, "We'll go on, and the person who suggested it knows it first. There's some continuity, but we usually try to vary it up. Not enough to where you wouldn't recognize the song - we're not as free-form as some artists, but we do like to have a little bit of fun with it and see what we can do with it that might make it better. Especially when we first start doing them, you know."
It has indeed been a long, long road for Blue Highway, but Stafford thinks there are many miles yet to go.
"I could be totally wrong, but I don't see anyone wanting to call it quits just yet. I was just thinking about the Nashville Bluegrass Band, they've been together (more than 20) years. We're like stem cells compared to those guys, (they've) just held it together."
He mentions the many projects outside the band that each of them have going on (such as his own soon-to-be published biography of Tony Rice), but emphasizes that there's a lot more to come from Blue Highway. "Like I say, we had our best year last year, financially, and I think at this point in our lives, you know, we had two guys in the band turn 40 last year, and a couple of us are approaching the other, higher-up number - Wayne's already there - but I don't really see at this point there would be much sense in doing other things because we're already doing them anyway."