Blue Highway: the band remains the same

John Lupton, June 2005

For Rob Ickes (rhymes with "mikes"), just past his 38th birthday, the band's decade together has been personally and musically rewarding beyond what he ever expected.

"What I think is really special about the band - well, a couple of things, but the songwriting, to me, is just a really strong point because I like being in a bluegrass band that's really creative."

"I wouldn't want to be in a band that plays covers all the time. I love when these guys play a new song - and I mean, these guys are writing some great songs - and we've got a whole album full. We've always had a lot of originals on our records. So, to play bluegrass, but not have to play a bunch of covers is really cool for me...I think we're really pushing the envelope as far as chord progressions and lyric-wise. I can't think of any other band that does that."

By "these guys," of course, Ickes means Stafford, Taylor and Lane (though he and Burleson contribute instrumentals), and there are few other bands that can boast as many as two talented songwriters, let alone three. One of the hallmarks of the Blue Highway sound has been the depth and breadth that the varied, yet complementary styles of this trio bring.

On "Marbletown," for example, Taylor again demonstrates his story-telling talents with "No Home To Go Home To," while Stafford visits the Old West with "Wild Bill," a biography-in-a-song. It is, says Ickes, just another ripple on what he has come to appreciate as a very deep pond.

"Tim is a very bright guy. He has a master's in history, he is very well-read, and he's one of these guys - I don't know if he has a photographic memory or what, but he just remembers everything that he's read. It's funny because, especially late at night on the road, we'll be driving down the highway, and we always get into these discussions, either metaphysical or historical or he just got into this Wild Bill Hickock thing a few years ago, and it's pretty accurate. It's neat, it's like a folk song that's describing historical events."

Lane wrote "Wild Urge To Ramble," and if it sounds like he's "channeling" someone, Ickes says that's not far off the mark.

"Shawn says that when he was coming up with it, he just heard Del McCoury singing we tried to kind of put a 'Del McCoury Band' spin on it, the way we arranged it. But yeah, Shawn has said that he just had Del McCoury's voice going through his head when he wrote that, so I guess Del inspired that one."

Not wanting to be a "cover band" doesn't mean never doing covers, though, as the new disc's title track attests. Written by Dire Straits guitarist Mark Knopfler, it was Stafford, according to Ickes, who pegged it as prime Blue Highway material.

"Of course, we're all familiar with Dire Straits, but Tim probably knows Mark's stuff more than the rest of us, and that song came off an album that Mark did that was sort of acoustic, had a lot of acoustic guitar. His version is just guitar and vocal, and it's really nice, and Tim just thought this could be a really great bluegrass song, and we just came up with a really nice arrangement that fit the lyrics, and Mark really likes it too, so that's pretty cool, to get a nice tip of the hat from him."

Bluegrass has a long history of dominant bandleaders who mold and bend the talents of their sidemen to fit their own concept of "what it should sound like," and, of course, the music began as the expression of Bill Monroe's personal musical vision.

For the self-described democracy of Blue Highway, though, a big part of what keeps them together is the challenge and sheer joy of jumping in together to see where the music takes them.

"A lot of times, we just start playing, you know, and it's funny because we teach at these workshops...and we teach individual instruction during the day, and in the afternoon, we'll teach band. They'll make bands out of all these different players, and then we'll talk about that, about the arrangements and things."

"One thing I see (among the students) is that everyone tries to just (think) it out too much, kind of talking about it too much instead of just playing. I always try to tell everybody, just play, and what's gonna happen is, there's gonna be a lyric in that verse that the Dobro player's gonna like. He's gonna hear something that he wants to play on there, and he's gonna grab it, and it just happens. And that's how we (Blue Highway) arrange stuff, we just start playing."

Developing close musical bonds and friendships with each other certainly helps a lot, says Ickes, but on the other hand, as they learned in their first couple of years, nothing succeeds like success.

"Everybody's pretty easy to work with, and I think when we got started, we caught everybody at a good time. Everybody could commit, and I think that's the hard part when you're getting a band together, is getting the commitment. The other thing that helps is, our first record did really well. It won album of the year (IBMA, 1996), and we won a lot of awards when the band first started, so that kind of kicked us up a couple of notches as far as getting a lot of bookings, so we could afford to get the band off the ground."

"In some ways, I could see how it would be easier if it was 'So-and-So and So-and-So', as far as a star and just a band. Sometimes a democracy is slower, and it takes a longer time to come to decisions about stuff, but I think that's part of the reason we've been together so long too because everybody has an equal say in every aspect of the band. We have a lot of the work divided up, but it is definitely a five-piece thing."

A native of the San Francisco Bay area, Ickes now lives in Nashville (the rest of the band lives a few hours away, in the Kingsport, Tenn. area), where he moved in the early '90s to break into not only bluegrass, but establish himself as a session musician. He's been successful on both counts, saying he divides his time more or less equally between session work and his Blue Highway commitments.

Prior to Blue Highway, he gained a reputation as an up-and-coming Dobro prodigy through stints with high-profile acts like the Lynn Morris Band, but the Blue Highway era has elevated him to the level of being spoken of in the same breath with the likes of Mike Auldridge and Jerry Douglas.

"My family played a lot of music when I was a kid. My grandpa played the fiddle, and my grandma played the piano and accordion, and everybody in my grandpa's family plays - lot of fiddle players in my grandpa's family. So it was around me a lot when I was a kid, and I just thought that was normal. I thought everybody's grandpa played the fiddle, and everybody got together once a week and played music because that's what I was used to."

"When I got older, my older brother Pat started playing the banjo, and then we started listening to bluegrass because my grandparents didn't really play bluegrass. Some of the tunes cross over, but they weren't really into bluegrass. (My brother and I) started going to bluegrass festivals, and that's what really got me excited about playing."

"You know how everybody jams around the campfire at night, and that's something that really struck a chord with me. I mean like 'I want to start playing something. This is too fun.' So, on the way back from one of these first festivals I went to, I heard a tape of Mike Auldridge, his first album, and I was like, 'What is that? That is the coolest thing ever,' and I just got infatuated with the sound and have been playing ever since...(that album) hit me in a big way, like a lightning bolt."

Outside of Blue Highway, Ickes has released several solo albums that highlight the side of his musical personality - for which he credits Tony Rice as something of an influence - that leans strongly toward jazz.

"I try to play what fits. I have done a couple of records that delve into the jazz material and a jazz band sort of style, but when I play with Blue Highway, I don't feel like I'm playing jazz. I love jazz, and I just love the sound of the Dobro with drums, piano and saxophone, and I think the Dobro can have sort of an electric guitar kind of sound because you have more sustain that with an acoustic guitar, and that's something that really interests me (as far as) stuff I'm pursuing on the instrument."

As Blue Highway progressed, Ickes found, so did they all, individually.

"When we first started the band, I stuck more to the record, how I played it in the studio, but these days I definitely just try to go for it every time. There are some songs that I feel like I just have to play it this way for it to feel right, but on most of it, I'm trying to take chances because something happens when you're improvising. There's a lot more energy, and your music kind of comes from somewhere else. When you're playing something you already know, you end up kind of thinking about it, and it seems like it just doesn't have the same vitality. So I think (with) our whole band, there's a lot of improvisation going on onstage."

In the end, it's their appeal across the board that Ickes and his comrades appreciate most. "Some people say, 'I like you guys because you're real traditional,' and other people say 'I like you because you're real progressive,' so that's what's fun about it for me, is being able to sort of stretch out, yet it's still a bluegrass band."

© Country Standard Time • Jeffrey B. Remz, editor & publisher •