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Blue Highway rides a wondrous sound

By Tom Netherland, July 2003

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But without a song to sing, even ol' Charlie and Ira Louvin would have been at somewhat a loss. Well, there's certainly no shortage of fine songs both old and new that are ripe for the singing for a band such as Blue Highway - but what to choose? "We originally had a lot more (than 13 songs chosen). We wanted to narrow it down to 12, and we did at first, but then we thought, this album was not long enough," Stafford says. "We got to listening to the rough mixes, and we really needed another song, and that's when we added 'It Won't Be Long,' that song of Shawn's and Gerald Ellenburg's 'cause we had considered that one for another record we did."

Excellent choice. Instead of a relatively new song, "It Won't Be Long" instead sounds like a three-minute blast out of the 1950s.

"When I heard that one I thought of 'Model Church,' that one that J.D. Crowe did. It's got that kind of feel to it," Stafford says. "It is really old fashioned, and that's one thing that I like about it."

Song choice raises a question regarding a band with so many talented members as Blue Highway. Who decides which songs to record from a mound of songs at their disposal? "When you come down to picking out material, we've always approached it real simply," Stafford says. "We lay out the tunes that we think will make good songs for the record. Then, the guys write a lot of songs, so we put out our original songs, and we'll decide which ones of those we like. Then we just add 'em all up, and we just have a vote. This band has always been about as democratic as you can get."

No stubborn sons-of-guns in Blue Highway.

"You can't be that way and function in a group like this," Stafford says. "That's one of the best qualities I think you can have, be open-minded and willing to compromise."

Still, it's a safe bet that no vote was needed regarding Blue Highway's decision to record Bill Monroe's "Wicked Path of Sin." Fine songs paired with fine singers makes for fantastic combinations.

They did Monroe right. A highlight on an album full of highlights, this pew-pounder could make the most sinful among us jump up and holler, 'glory hallelujah, I've seen the light!'

"That one was done live in the studio," Stafford says. "In fact, the whole album has got more of a live feel to it than any one that we've ever done, and that's because of Alan O'Bryant (the album's producer). He really wanted us to try to go for it live, so all of the songs have singing at the same time as the instruments are being played."

Sounds silly? Strike that snicker. You would be surprised to learn just how many records are cut these days during which the singer rarely if ever interacts with the musicians. But that's not bluegrass, and that's not Blue Highway.

"So, it's all done at the same time," Stafford says. "It's maybe less precise this way and maybe less perfect, but it's got that live feel to it that I really like. 'Wicked Path of Sin' was one that we had worked up for a tribute to Bill Monroe right after he passed away. We were playing at a festival up in Connecticut, and he had passed away that weekend. They came back the second say we played that weekend and said, 'Okay, we're gonna do a tribute to Bill Monroe, and we want you guys to do one song.'"

So Stafford, Ickes and company set to arrange "Wicked Path of Sin" on the fly. Little time to prepare, it came off with nary a hitch then and then later on the new record.

"I already knew that song. It didn't take very long to work it out (for the record)," Stafford says.

Certain songs in the bluegrass canon are ingrained in musicians and fans alike. Monroe's "Wicked Path of Sin" would be one of those songs.

"There's a shared repertoire there," Stafford says. "It's like a language almost, a different language little by little. I consider this one of the last oral traditions. It dates all the way back to the Greeks, all the way back to Homer. I think so because it's passed down by kids watching how it's done and by listening to the records."

Wayne Taylor did just that in choosing George Jones' classic "Old Brush Arbors" for Blue Highway, Stafford says. Surprisingly, that song has not really been covered extensively, but given the Possum's definitive rendition, perhaps few bands were willing to give it a go.

"He had heard that years ago from George Jones, so that's the version he learned it from," Stafford says. "I've always liked that song. I think it helped us that most of us in the group hadn't heard George's version. Wayne had, and it was just another song that he had learned along the way, so we felt free to kind of put our own arrangement on it."

That sort of sums up the album. With "Wondrous Love," Blue Highway has managed to exist within the gospelgrass boundaries and yet do so without sacrificing its own vibrant creativity.

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