Blue Highway: (from left) Shawn Lane, Wayne Taylor, Jason Burleson, Rob Ickes, Tim Stafford. ‘We know it’s all about a song,’ says Lane.

Blue Highway @ 15

New retrospective of Rounder years reveals a band in growth mode

By David McGee

Not your run-of-the-mill retrospective, Blue Highway’s Some Day: The Fifteenth Anniversary Collection celebrates only half of the stellar quintet’s history, being an assemblage of tracks from its four Rounder albums (plus one from dobro master Rob Ickes’s solo album, on which all the other Blue Highway members participated). The first half of BH’s recording career (three albums for Rebel Records, one for Ricky Skaggs’s Cieli Music label) is otherwise unrepresented, save for a re-recording of the moving gospel song “Some Day,” originally issued on the band’s third and final Rebel album, 1998’s Midnight Storm, but nevertheless the baker’s dozen tracks from the Rounder years (2001-present) is revelatory. For one, this timeframe finds the group’s three formidable songwriters—Tim Stafford, Shawn Lane and Wayne Taylor—elevating their craft with songs mixing humor and empathy, heartbreak and exultation and an embrace of spirituality and traditional values, in lyrics as literate and stirring any those of any contemporary bluegrass writers. To their original repertoire they mix in tasty, rootsy covers of songs by the likes of Mark Knopfler (whose hard charging train song, “Marbletown,” was the title track of Blue Highway’s 2005 album) along with fine-tuned choices of traditional tunes that fit the BH character, notably, in this retrospective, the stark, dramatic, multi-voiced harmonies extolling the joys of earthly redemption and life eternal in the sacred harp hymn, “Wondrous Love.” If that weren’t enough, Blue Highway is blessed to have not only three superior songwriters, but five, count ‘em five, exemplary musicians—Jason Burleson on banjo and the indomitable Rob Ickes on dobro joining Stafford (guitar), Lane (guitar, mandolin, fiddle) and Taylor (bass) in stringed supremacy. In fact, to sweeten this album Blue Highway has included three new songs (well, two, to be precise, with the third being the aforementioned re-recording of “Some Day”) on which all the band’s strengths coalesce: Lane’s co-write with his collaborator Gerald Ellenburg, “Cold and Lowdown Lonesome Blues” is, despite its title and lyrical tale of romantic betrayal and enduring woe, a barnburner of a tune initially fueled by Lane’s anxious mandolin strumming before Burleson joins the fray with a delirious, rolling flurry of banjo ahead of Ickes’s crying lines and a delicious solo trade-off with Lane’s mandolin; the music is so infectious, in fact, that the singer’s lament that “there’s no fire left in my life now” makes you feel as if he’s not really as bad off as he would like you to believe—a sequel to this chapter may be in order. On the other hand, Tim Stafford, with band buddy Darrell Scott, penned one of the bluest blues Blue Highway has ever recorded, “Bleeding For a Little Peace of Mind,” a dark, driving, dynamically rich treatise about a brokenhearted man who sees no light ahead, and no hope for relief from relentless despair—“somehow I’m afraid that I will find/there’s no bottom anymore” is the chilling revelation guest vocalist Scott rasps from the bottom of a soul hollowed out by misfortune without respite, dating back to childhood and enduring still. The story is so gripping, and Scott’s vocal so dramatic and chilling, you might overlook the atmospheric touches lent to the soundscape via emotional, unembroidered solos by Burleson and Ickes. The group’s most recent studio album, 2008’s Through the Window of a Train, featured an interesting new wrinkle in the form of two songs reflecting topical themes, Taylor’s portrait of a forgotten, down-and-out Vietnam Vet, “Homeless Man,” and Stafford’s “Two Soldiers,” centered on the burdens shouldered by the men in uniform charged with delivering news of a loved one’s death to his or her family. Unfortunately, those are not included here, but the title track did win IBMA’s 2008 Song of the Year, so you figure it belongs, and the other song off Train to make the cut is Lane-Ellenburg’s dramatic, backwoods, Civil War-era story-song, “Sycamore Hollow,” which in and of itself embodies all the attributes of narrative cohesion, dramatic resonance and empathetic instrumental support marking the finest of Blue Highway’s work. Ultimately, Some Day does the job of honoring the second half of Blue Highway’s recorded legacy in fine fashion. If the upshot of spending some time with these tracks is to inspire fans to dig deeper into the albums represented here, and to visit others that preceded the Rounder years, then the method to the madness of compressing so much rich history onto a single disc will reveal itself to be savvy indeed.

Blue Highway, the sacred harp hymn ‘Wondrous Love,’ from Some Day: The Fifteenth Anniversary Collection. This video was done two years ago, in honor of the band’s 13th anniversary.


‘I feel like we’re the luckiest people in the world’

Blue Highway’s Jason Burleson and Shawn Lane reflect on the band’s 15-year journey

The Blue Highway story began on December 31, 1994, when the newly formed quintet played its first show after being assembled by former members of Alison Krauss’s and Ricky Skaggs’s bands (Tim Stafford and Shawn Lane, respectively), who decided to go their own way and soon recruited songwriter/basssist Wayne Taylor, Jason Burleson on banjo and, on dobro, a still relatively unknown Rob Ickes. In Stafford, Lane and Taylor the band boasted three of the most gifted lyricists ever to assemble in one bluegrass band, whereas Burleson and Ickes both contributed rousing, emotionally expressive original instrumentals to the group’s repertoire. There are no sure things in life, but from the outset Blue Highway seemed marked for greatness. In 1995 the band won IBMA’s Emerging Artist of the Year award; the next year saw it take IBMA’s Album of the Year award for its Rebel Records debut, It’s a Long, Long Road, and Ickes the first of an unprecedented 10 Dobro Player of the Year awards. Grammy nominations, Dove and SPGMA awards have ensued over the years, as Blue Highway set the standard for contemporary bluegrass bands with its heartfelt vocals, populist-oriented songs and virtuoso musicianship. On the occasion of its 15th anniversary, and the release later this month of Some Day: The Fifteenth Anniversary Collection (which features two new songs written for the album, as well as a glorious re-recording of one of its a cappella gospel standouts, “Some Day,” originally featured on BH’s 1998 Rebel album Midnight Storm), checked with the band’s banjo master Jason Burleson and one of the men who truly is the voice of Blue Highway as a songwriter and vocalist, Shawn Lane, to get their thoughts on the long, long road they’ve traveled together the past decade and a half. –David McGee 

Let’s talk about the three new songs first. Do you have a favorite among the three, by the way?

JASON BURLESON: My favorite is the new cut we did with Darrell Scott, “Bleeding For a Little Peace of Mind.”

I don’t know if Blue Highway ever gets any bluer than it is on this song. This is quite something that Tim and Darrell crafted, isn’t it?

BURLESON: Yes, it is. They wrote this together and we got Darrell to come in the studio and we worked up an arrangement on the spot, and the first time we got all the way through it is the cut that’s on the record. We went through it three times, I think, and we ended up keeping the first take.

One of the striking differences between that song and “Cold and Lowdown Lonesome Blues,” which opens the album, is that “Cold and Lowdown,” even though it’s about the aftermath of a breakup and the guy is bitter and all that, the music is kind of spirited and driving; but on “Bleeding For a Little Piece of Mind,” this guy is alone and abject and sees no hope for himself, and the music reflects that. Even though they’re both kind of bluesy songs, the “Bleeding” one is bluer than blue.

BURLESON: Yeah, they wrote it about clinical depression, There’s one line in there that goes, “I’d be happy to feel sad.” A lot of people who are really depressed say they don’t feel anything, and that’s where that line comes from.

SHAWN LANE; Isn’t that a great song? I’ve never heard that topic written about in the way it was done in that song. Great song, great vocal on there, and I think it’s important that Darrell sung it, being one of the writers. He knew where the song was supposed to go and could feel it.

Shawn, your song “Cold and Lonesome Lowdown Blues” is a co-write and leads off the album. Was it crafted specifically for this collection, or was it one you had sitting around for awhile?

LANE: Actually, we wrote that song on Christmas Eve last year (2008). A friend of mine, Gerald, Ellenburg, we write a lot together. We have some really good sessions; we’re real in tune with how each other works, and we’re used to working together. We talked to each other on the phone last Christmas eve, and he said, “What are you doing?” I said, “Nothing at all.” He said, “I’m sittin’ around, too. Why don’t you come up and we’ll write one.” And I said, “Well, that’s crazy enough. Let’s do it.” So I went up and we wrote that last year on Christmas Eve. And we didn’t have any idea what we were going to write at that time, we just got together and that idea came up. Actually, we had a great time writing that song—we laughed the whole time. This guy is so lowdown and lonesome the water’s freezing in the house and he won’t even get up and turn the heat on.

It’s not a humorous song per se, but it has some humorous aspects to it, yet the music is so spirited and lively that you think, He’s not too bad off.

LANE: Yeah! Like I say, we had a great time, it fell out on us and it came quick. We wrote it in about an hour.

As one of the band’s three songwriters, you help give voice to Blue Highway; that the band has an identifiable point of view is due in part to your contributions. Do you write according to a schedule, or are you one of those writers who has to wait for the muse to strike?

LANE: When I write on my own, I wait for inspiration to strike. But if I’m going to co-write with someone else, I’ll schedule an appointment, get together and see what shakes out. I like to say, You never know what’s in the room. We never know what we’re gonna grab out of the air when we get together to write. Unless we have an agenda and somebody we’re writing for, we just go down the road that comes to us whenever we do get together. I think that’s kind of our plan.

Certainly one of the highlights of every Blue Highway show I’ve seen, it’s probably true of every show you play, is that moment when you guys perform a gospel tune or two. Listening to your new recording of “Some Day” inspired a thought in me: you are all men of faith, and I wonder if your individual faith makes the band stronger as a collective?

BURLESON: I think it does. It’s hard to sing a song like that unless you believe it. “Some Day,” the history behind that is that Tim’s ex-wife’s aunt wrote that as her own eulogy, to be spoken over her body at her funeral. So Tim found that poem in his collection of his wife’s stuff and and it knocked him out, so he put a melody to it. We originally recorded it on Midnight Storm on Rebel, and it’s probably turned out to be our most requested song. Rounder wanted a version of it so we re-cut it for this record.

One of the most popular of the band’s gospel songs is one this album, “Seventh Angel,” and it’s one of your songs, Shawn. I understand it’s inspired by a verse in Revelation. What’s the background on that?

LANE: I was really into Revelations at the time I wrote that song. There’s some good imagery in there. If you imagine that stuff, it’ll raise cold chills on you every time. I don’t know why I came with the idea of writing from the seventh angel’s perspective, but I guess it was because he was the last one to to do his thing before it all came down. So I just kind of read that verse, read it over again, made sure to get it right according to the scripture—I didn’t want to change it to have to rhyme something in a song. So I tried to get it as close to the way it’s actually written as I could. I’ve got a lot of comments on that song. Some trucker told me that a couple of years ago he was coming down the freeway into L.A. and it was 3 a.m., he was the only one on the road and he could see the lights of the city up ahead. And that song came on the radio and he had to pull the truck over, get out, get on his knees and just look up at the stars. It’s pretty powerful to hear stories like that. You never know—I think that’s what keeps you doing it.

Blue Highway, ‘Through the Window of a Train,’ IBMA Song of the Year, 2008, from Some Day: The Fifteenth Anniversary Collection

The other thing that has struck me about Blue Highway over the years is that you all are virtuosos on your instruments, but you really have a made a statement for the band as one that trades in songs rather than flourishes of technical mastery. You do have moments in the show where everybody gets to cut out and show off a little bit, and audiences love it, and you have on this album “Monrobro,” where everybody gets to strut their stuff, but the band really has built its reputation on songs reflecting the everyday realities in peoples’ lives, especially the hard times.

BURLESON: We’re lucky enough to have three really great songwriters in the band in Tim, Wayne and Shawn. And when we get together to do a new album, what we do is all get together and pass the guitar around and start throwing out songs. Usually those three guys will have some songs they think will work for the band really well. And we usually end up with way too many original songs within the band, and we have to narrow that down to twelve. What we try to do is pick twelve that would work good together, not necessarily the twelve hottest songs but the twelve that would make a complete album.

On the 2008 album, Through The Window Of a Train, there was an interesting development from previous records. There were a number of songs that addressed social issues—“Homeless Man,” about a struggling Vietnam vet; “Two Soldiers”; and even the rodeo rider in “My Ropin’ Days are Done.” I thought these signaled a different direction in addressing these issues. Did the band consciously want to move in a topical direction?

BURLESON; I think it was more just something that happened organically. We didn’t set out to say, “Let’s find some political kind of things.” Those just happened to be the best songs that fit together for that record. But I remember Tim brought a demo of “Two Soldiers” on the road when we were trying to pick out some material, and he put it in the CD player and I said, “We have to do that song.” Because it just moved me to tears the first time I heard, and it still does.

LANE; It’s really great to be in a band with four great guys who do appreciate a good song. That’s what it starts with, in any genre, and then it’ll tell you what to do as a producer or as a musician. All these guys listen, and they’re aware of that, and that’s a pretty invaluable thing to have.

I want to take you back to the early days of the group. What brought this group of musicians together in the first place?

BURLESON; I was actually the last one to join. Tim was playing with Alison Krauss and he left in 1922. He interviewed with a band that Wayne Taylor was a part of at that time. Tim said he got to thinking that if Wayne ever left that band it would be cool to get in a band with him because he’s such a great singer and songwriter. So those two were the ones who started it. And then Shawn was playing with Ricky Skaggs and he decided to leave that band, and called Tim to see if he wanted to get together and pick, so there’s those three. Then Rob had come out from California to work on one of the Cox Family records. He and Tim played together some then, and Tim asked if he was interested in the new band, and he was. Even before Tim had got with Alison Krauss he was in a band called Dusty Miller, which consisted of Tim, Adam Steffey and Barry Bales. The banjo player in that band lived in Nashville; the other guys lived in east Tennessee. So if they had a local gig that didn’t pay much, they would call me to come fill in on banjo, because it wasn’t really worth it for the other banjo player to drive all that way. So I got to fill in on banjo with Dusty Miller, and at the time that Blue Highway was forming, I was mainly a guitar and mandolin player; I hadn’t really played the banjo seriously in a few years. But Tim remembered me from the Dusty Miller days, so he called, and I was definitely interested, but I had to kinda go back to the woodshed with the banjo.

One of the other distinguishing characteristics of Blue Highway is that you’ve had a stable lineup for all these years. How has the band avoided what is essentially a bluegrass tradition of musicians changing partners every so often?

BURLESON: Well, I think one of thing is we’ve never had a bus. That creates a huge financial responsibility, and it’s almost like you have to take shows you don’t want in order to pay for it. We keep the overhead really low; we all get along really well; we all have the same musical taste as far as what we consider to be good. There’s not one person who is in left field on what they consider to be good. So I think that has helped us stay together for this long.

LANE; You have to have quite a bit in common to be able to work together, because there’s a business aspect and then there’s the personal thing where you ride up and down the road. The business is an hour show, but you have to like the people and really respect them in order to work with them that long, you know. So it’s worked out good, we’re lucky, unique and blessed in that way, but we all agree pretty much on how the music goes, of course, and we know it’s all about a song and whatever the song needs. And they listen and play what the song needs, so musically we agree and it so happens that we agree business-wise too, which is rare, for five guys.. It’s not perfect; there’s places where we disagree, but everyone’s smart enough to know we got a good thing going and you bend when you have to in order to make it work. That’s what we’ve been able to do.

This may not be a fair question to ask about a 15-year history, but is there a moment, or a particular event, in Blue Highway’s history that defines for you what this band is all about?

BURLESON: I can’t think of any one event or show that really pops out. That would be a hard one to answer. I mean we’ve had a bunch of really good breaks. When we got together and recorded It’s a Long, Long Road, we had done one show together at the time we went in the studio, and we ended up winning record of the year at IBMA, we won emerging artist, song of the year, all that. That really got us off to a good start when that first album did so well. The band started out to be kind of a part-time thing, and when that album did so well, a lot of promoters wanted to book us for festivals, and we got busier, busier and busier, so it developed into a full-time thing from that.

What has been the biggest change in Blue Highway over 15 years?

LANE: I don’t know. We’ve got a lot less hair and what’s left is gray. We just do what we do. We had one band member change, but Jason came back. We just try to make the next record be the best it can be when we go into the studio. That’s all you can ever do, really.

The history of contemporary bluegrass cannot be written without it going through Blue Highway. How does that make you feel, that you’ve become such a big part of the music you’ve played and loved most if not all of your life?

LANE: I never thought of it that way. It’s kind of mind boggling, really. If somebody can enjoy just a little bit of what I do, I’m more than happy and satisfied with that. We didn’t plan for this to happen; it just kind of evolved as we went down this road together. We didn’t set out with a plan that we were going to be together 15 years and make this many records. I think taking it one day at a time and staying focused on the song, one song at a time, one record at a time, go out and make an honest living to a great bunch of fans… I feel like we’re the luckiest people in the world.

Blue Highway, ‘Some Day,’ a powerful performance of the hymn included on Some Day: The Fifteenth Anniversary Collection

What challenges are left for Blue Highway?

LANE: Oh, several. I think we need to do a live record; I feel like it’s time for us and would be a good challenge for us. And just keeping the record process and making another good record, and another one, and just keep putting something out there that the people see fit to buy.

Is it as much fun for you now as it was when you started up and started collecting all those awards?

LANE: You know, it is, because I’ve kind of realized how to have fun with it now. Back then I was more worried about, “I have to play this break right,” or “I have to sing this note right.” Now it’s laying back and enjoying it, and it’s a lot more fun that way. And you can play and sing better if you’re relaxed and enjoy the people who came to see you, because they came there to see you, so there’s no reason to be uptight. Just play and sing. Yeah, I enjoy it more than I ever did.

BURLESON: It is. And actually I left the band in July of ’98, came back in July of 2000l. I had just gotten married and just needed to be at home for awhile. Tom Adams took my place, but when he decided to leave they called and asked me if I wanted to come back, so I’ve been back ever since. It almost seems like I never left.

What are the plans for your next studio album?

BURLESON: Since this one came out it’ll probably be awhile before they would release another one, but we’re thinking of going back into the studio this spring and getting one in the can anyway. We’ve been recording up in Big Stone Gap, Virginia, at the Maggard Studio, where Ralph Stanley still cuts almost all of his stuff. It’s a really laid back place in the country and there’s no pressure, you can just have a good time, and they’re great guys to work with there, too.

LANE: It’s probably about time we go in. We haven’t talked about it, but it feels like in the spring we’ll probably start. We’ve already thrown some new songs out there when we had the session to get this record together. We had a few extra songs and we set them aside to put on the next studio record. So we have that much of a jump on it. 

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And in case you missed it, Blue Highway’s most recent studio album…

Blue Highway

Not that Blue Highway hasn't been working on a higher plane all along, but on Through The Window Of a Train the quintet outdoes itself. Produced by the band at Maggard Sound in Big Stone Gap, Virginia, the album resonates with a contemporary backwoods feel coupled to an urgency born of strong original material flush with social consciousness. It's compelling as both literature and music, a memorable achievement in every respect. A decorated Vietnam vet, now forgotten and struggling, is fully realized and vividly recalled by Wayne Taylor's sharp-eyed, empathetic observations in his poignant "Homeless Man," an all too common tale that rolls out with chilling inevitability against the steady strumming of two guitars and a mandolin supporting Taylor's sturdy tenor vocal. The same two guitars-and-mandolin lineup sputters a steady rhythm to power Tim Stafford's "Two Soldiers," a gut-wrenching but seldom-told tale of the emotional toll exacted on the uniformed men who bring families the tragic news of a soldier's death, a chilling portrait that fades out with the sound of a lone, haunting brush drum and, further in the distance, a muted boom, like guns in salute to the fallen. A pure bluegrass toe-tapper, Stafford's steady churning title song happens to relate the poignant reminiscences of a lifelong railroader reflecting on the moving diversity of life he saw from his cab while others were driving "the same old roads." In the moody ballad "My Ropin' Days Are Done," Stafford co-opts the melody from "Streets of Laredo" to relate the anxiety of a rodeo cowboy who's feeling adrift as age does him in, although his plaintive adieu suggests he's got one more ride left in him before he goes home for good. Dreams die hard here. Get on board; Blue Highway's on a roll. —David McGee

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Surf the Blue Highway, acrylic on canvas by Denise Jaunsem (

Founder/Publisher/Editor: David McGee
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