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Sounds of Home

Blue Highway

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Album Review

Sounds of Home, Blue Highway's tenth album in its 17-year existence, is also the bluegrass quintet's third CD, following Still Climbing Mountains and Through the Window of a Train, to consist entirely of original songs written by members of the group. It is a tribute to both the bandmembers' fidelity to bluegrass tradition and to their songwriting ability that it would be possible to listen to the disc without realizing that the material is all newly written. Shawn Lane (guitar, mandolin, fiddle, vocals), Wayne Taylor (bass, vocals), and Tim Stafford (guitar, vocals) with his writing partner Steve Gulley all contribute traditional-sounding numbers that touch on issues of love, family, work, faith, and, of course, home in a manner that never betrays the 21st century origins of the tunes, and the group, also including Rob Ickes (Dobro, slide guitar) and Jason Burleson (banjo, guitar, mandolin, vocals) plays them in traditional bluegrass styles that include melancholy ballads ("Sounds of Home" itself), instrumental breakdowns ("Roaring Creek"), and even an old-timey country sound (the steel guitar-infused "My Heart Was Made to Love You"). Lane's high tenor voice, reminiscent of Bill Monroe, adds to the traditional feel of "I Ain't Gonna Lay My Hammer Down" and "Nobody's Fault But Mine" when he sings lead, and also gives the required "high lonesome" feel when he provides harmonies. Love is professed and denied, nature is celebrated and feared, manual labor sustains and threatens ("Only Seventeen" follows a teenager down a mine), and, throughout, God rules the universe. And it's all set to some blistering fingerpicking on the acoustic instruments, making for an excellent Blue Highway album to add to the collection.

Customer Reviews

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Coming at a new album from Blue Highway it’s easy to expect lots of things, perhaps foremost among them is their unflagging professionalism. This album—like everything they’ve done, frankly—sparkles with maturity and confidence, and there’s good reason for that. The band has been together (as Jon Weisberger notes in the beautiful liner essay) for more than 15 years without any personnel changes. That’s unusual in the world of bluegrass, but perhaps it is because this is a group of players that proved themselves long before forming as Blue Highway—they are veterans of studio work, as well as playing with the biggest names out there, including Alison Kraus, Ricky Skaggs, Doyle Lawson and others. To a man, they are all great players, and the proof of that is abundant. Rob Ickes alone has won the IBMA’s Dobro player of the year 11 times. Guitarist Tim Stafford has taught music, written about it, served as chair on the IBMA board, and in 2001 was voted guitar performer of the year. Much like the Nashville Bluegrass Band, Blue Highway is in the realm of supergroup in that the members’ skills are so consummate and so evenly matched. Again, they’ve got nothing to prove, chops-wise, and thankfully they don’t feel the need to. The result is an album of songs rather than a collection of licks and solos.

On this album—again, as on so much of what the band has done together—it’s easy to lose yourself in the ideas and the stories the songs tell. As on past Blue Highway songs—such as “He Walked All the Way Home,” “Before the Cold Wind Blows,” or more recently “Homeless Man,” penned by bassist Wayne Taylor—the songs here grab your attention, though you perhaps only realise that when you find yourself gazing off into space lost in the ideas and the memories they bring to mind. There’s is a music that allows the listener to sit down, be quite, and think about some of the important things in life.

One of the things that makes this particular collection unique, even for Blue Highway, is that—with the exception of one cover (“Nobody’s Fault But Mine”)—the band members have had a hand in the writing the material. And if there is a remarkable maturity to their playing and interpreting skills, the same can certainly be said of their writing. There is some regret in here, an awareness that things can be difficult (“Storm”) and some reflection on the bittersweetness of time passing (“Bluebird Days”); “If You’ve Got Something to Say” recognises that not all love stories have happy endings, while “Drinking From a Deeper Well” recognises the wisdom that can come from experience.

Ultimately these are songs about real people, and about ideas that, in keeping with the title, hit very close to home. While other bands are singing of high drama—murder ballads, drunken fights—Blue Highway sing about things that they know well, and in listening to them we find that we do too.

Biography

Formed: 1994 in Nashville, TN

Genre: Country

Years Active: '90s, '00s, '10s

The five experienced members of progressive bluegrass group Blue Highway have played in the bands of such notable artists as Alison Krauss & Union Station, Ricky Skaggs, Larry Sparks, and Doyle Lawson. Guitarist and vocalist Tim Stafford played on the Grammy-winning album Every Time You Say Goodbye by Alison Krauss & Union Station, while Dobro player Rob Ickes earned one for his contribution to the various-artists project The...
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Sounds of Home, Blue Highway
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