We’ve been having a great run of top quality bluegrass music on Roots, with Hot Rize and Doyle Lawson and Special Consensus. But talk of “great runs” in bluegrass withers in comparison to the epic journey of a band joining us this week for our Spring season opener.
Blue Highway performed its first show on New Year’s Eve in 1994, and now, more than 20 years later, the band still consists of the same five guys who took the stage on that occasion. In 1995, when they released a debut album called It’s A Long, Long Road, none of them I suspect saw it as a prophecy. But there you go. Such longevity as a full band is incredibly rare, but the chemistry in this quintet is particular.
Guitarist Tim Stafford seems to have been the chief instigator, inviting together some of the finest pickers he knew in his picker-rich home area near Clinch Mountain in Virginia. Shawn Lane and Wayne Taylor became co-lead vocalists from their positions on mandolin and bass respectively. Jason Burleson is more taciturn, but he makes a mighty and seductive roll on the banjo. The geographic outlier was California-born Rob Ickes, well known to Roots Heads as the most awarded dobro player in IBMA history, prolific collaborator and recording artist, and inventor of our show’s theme song “Born In A Barn.” Meanwhile Tim Stafford is a super-cool cat who plays guitar like nobody else, sings great, writes tremendous songs and supports bluegrass music outside the band in myriad ways.
Coming as they (mostly) did from the land of the Stanley Brothers and Jim & Jesse, Blue Highway brought an inborn passion for the old mountain music sound. But they used that as a starting point, not a destination. Their clean, robust and, yes, blue sound is instantly recognizable to bluegrass fans. They’ve defined what might be called the cutting edge of tradition through ten studio albums and countless, consistently tight shows.
I got on the bandwagon in 1998 with their third album, Midnight Storm. Between the deal-sealing opening track “I’d Rather Be A Lonesome Pine” and my fave “Find Me Out On A Mountain Top” there was a good amount of standing on mountains, something I’m fond of. But it was the overall feel and groove that made me a super-fan. Blue Highway sounds ideal driving the Appalachian Parkway or lying in the sun at Merlefest. Their smoking instrumental skills are complimented by award-winning ensemble singing, especially their often original a cappella gospel songs. The band’s most recent album and 20th anniversary project is The Game, and it’s clear these fellows know how to play the game of making America more musical. We’re honored to at last feature them as a guest on Roots.
The rest of our lineup looks superior and superb as well. I’ll be getting my first taste of The Get Right Band out of Asheville, NC. And how can I not look forward to guys who’ve been praised to the skies by roots radio giant WNCW and jam-band journal Relix, not to mention publications all over the Southeast where this trio has been throwing down funky power pop and reggae rock for some years now. Its guitar, bass and drum lineup has invited comparisons to The Police, a band central to my generation whose musical accomplishments are often overlooked. Their newest album has the simply awesome title Bass Treble Angel Devil, so I have to check that out.
I’m also super-excited to see Scott Mulvahill appear on our calendar, because he’s been a friend of the show hanging out at the venue, and because he’s a dang fine musician. The Nashville-based bass player, singer and songwriter has a smart pop sensibility that may remind you of Ben Sollee in ways that go even beyond crooning from behind an extra large stringed instrument. His regular gig is in support of Ricky Skaggs’s monster band Kentucky Thunder, so he knows how to carve a deep groove. But his own original music is more varied, melodic and universal in its appeal. He’s our Emerging Artist of the Week.
Opening the show will be the stomp and holler fiddle and banjo music of the Whiskey Bent Valley Boys. We loved ‘em last Spring when they played our annual Barn Dance. This time there won’t be a formal dance floor but you’re more than welcome to come up front and exhibit your best flat footing. As a musical description, I can’t beat the band’s own web site: “Songs from the tobacco fields to the rivers, iron skillets to moonshine stills, upbeat and professional, this band possesses the skill to honor history and preserve the instruments, their style and every authentic nuance of the day. With their sense of fashion, from overalls to string ties, straw hats to silk vests, along with a turbo charged performance, their approach breathes fire into this vintage genre.”
You know where the highway is. Make use of it. And be in Liberty Hall for the kickoff of the best season of the year.
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SPEAKING OF HIGHWAYS, our friends Melanie and Bill Davis want me to remind you about our free BUS TO ROOTS. You can’t beat this folks. For the same $10 ticket you’d pay at the door to see the show, you can be driven to the venue from the heart of Nashville – with food, refreshment, entertainment and classic hospitality. Bill and Melanie will serve you Monell’s appetizers and tastings of Blackstone beer. One of their East Nashville pals will play tunes, and you never know who it might be! The Anchor bus leaves The Five Spot at 5:30 and Soulshine Pizza in Mid-town at 6:00. Purchase your advance, all-together tickets HERE.