Today’s Feature – February 3-4: Blue Highway

February 4, 2008 at 9:57 pm (Today's Feature)

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Imagine five musical characters, all masters of their respective talents, coming together to form one of the most celebrated bands in music history – an authentic super-group that has released seven acclaimed albums, received two Grammy nominations, topped the charts multiple times and won a Dove Award. The reality is that Tim Stafford, Rob Ickes, Shawn Lane, Wayne Taylor and Jason Burleson indeed exist forming the gifted Blue Highway; if you’ve never heard of them, you’d better begin a new appreciation for the sweet echoes of Bluegrass. These musicians have also won an astonishing 14 International Bluegrass Music Association awards, individually and collectively.

The well-traveled Blue Highway has played from California to across the pond in the pubs of England as well as independently with bands like Alison Krauss & Union Station and with artists such as Earl Scruggs, Dolly Parton, Patty Loveless and Ricky Skaggs. With so much experience, the five players pull it together beautifully as “a democracy in the best sense of the word: five gifted artists selflessly merging their talents into a seamlessly brilliant group sound… with everyone singing from the same songbook and tuned into the same frequency.”

“Marbletown,” the Grammy-nominated album showcases their original material in a unique way, allowing the band to “explore some things they hadn’t done like the ‘Groovegrass’ feel of ‘Lazarus.'” Their latest album due out this month, “Through the Window of a Train” promises even more pioneering tunes that will set the bar higher and higher in the world of Bluegrass, proving these guys are the true mantelpiece of the genre. If you’re looking for a way to jump into this sound, Blue Highway is far and away your best method. Be sure to check out the new album and float over to their website – it’s getting a major facelift. Learn more in the XXQ’s.

XXQs: Blue Highway- Tim Stafford

PensEyeView.com (PEV): How and when did the band first form?

Tim Stafford (TS): In 1994. I had left Alison Krauss’s band Union Station in 1992 to spend more time with my son, who was born in January of that year. I also planned on going back to school to finish my doctorate in Ohio, but they wanted to make me take a lot of extra courses. I figured I’d put a band together at some point if I could get some local players together, and Wayne was playing with a group called the Tim Laughlin band. When that band fell apart, I asked if he’d be interested in forming a group, and he said yes. We went looking for other guys, but before we could ask anyone, Shawn Lane called to see what I was doing–he had just left Ricky Skaggs’ band and wanted to get off the road so much. Turns out he had about the same thing in mind as I did. I met Rob when I was playing with Alison, and he was just then moving to Nashville from California, so I called and he said sure. Banjo was the last piece, and we tried out a bunch of guys before settling on Jason, who I had known for ten years or so as a guitar player, but turns out he can play just about anything.

PEV: Growing up who were you listening to? Do you remember the first concert you attended?

TS: I grew up listening to bluegrass in the mid-’70s, bands like the Country Gentlemen, J.D. Crowe and the New South and the Seldom Scene. Before that, I was into Ray Charles, the Beatles, Yes, CCR, lots of different kinds of rock, show tunes. A couple of the early concerts I remember were The McLain Family Band at the Carter Fold in Hiltons, VA, and also IInd Generation at Ross N. Robinson Middle School Auditorium in Kingsport, TN. I also went to the Wise County Shriner’s Bluegrass Festival in the mid-’70s and got an education.

PEV: Tell us about the first time you stepped on stage, live as a band to perform. Did you think you’d be where you are now?

TS: No, not really. I knew it was going to be a very good band. We played our first show in Kinsgport at a New Year’s celebration called “First Night,” Dec. 31, 1994. Went into the studio the next month and when I heard Shawn and Wayne on tape for the first time, that duo blend, I knew we could have something good.

PEV: What is the best part about performing live on stage?

TS: Interacting with the audience and feeling that groove develop.

PEV: Was there a certain moment in your life that you knew music was going to be a career for you?

TS: I guess when I started playing with Alison. I had pretty much decided on an academic career track before I joined that group, although I always wanted to play professionally at some point. First big show we did was Telluride, and I thought, “This could get addictive…”

PEV: What can fans expect from a live Blue Highway performance?

TS: Hopefully something close to what you hear on the record. Lots of original material, good picking and singing, at least on a good night!

PEV: Tell us about your GRAMMY nominated album, Marbletown? TS: Scott Rouse helped us with that. I felt like it was our best record up until that point, kind of a departure for us in the arrangements.

PEV: How is Marbletown different from other albums out today?

TS: Hard to say. I think it showcases our original material in a unique way, and lets us explore some things we hadn’t done, like the “Groovegrass” feel of “Lazarus.”

PEV: How is Marbletown different from your previous works? How have you grown from your earlier works to where you are now?

TS: See above. I think our earlier works were feeling around for a style–we’re more confident about that now, and our longevity and sales record have allowed us to command better budgets, which make for better records.

PEV: How have all your friends and family reacted to your success?

TS: Oh, it’s about the same. Not hardly the Beatles or anything.. It is cool when someone recognizes us in town or out somewhere, but it doesn’t happen all that often, which is cool too.

PEV: In all your traveling, which city, International or US, do you think offers the best appreciation for music? As well which has been your favorite to perform?

TS: Hm, hard to say. West Coast events and festivals are different–usually more eclectic, not to say better, just different. We played a very neat music festival in Mendocino, CA last year–went for several weeks in the summer and we were the only bluegrass. They claim to want us back, and we’d love to go. We played in England last year and they were a very good audience too.

PEV: Who is in your CD player or on your iPod right now?

TS: Been listening to the following: Dock Boggs, Tommy Emmanuel, the Beatles, Ringo Starr, Paul McCartney, Andy McKee, Paul Simon, Jimmy Webb.

PEV: Is there an up and coming artist you think we should all be looking into today?

TS: Infamous Stringdusters. I produced their first record, great, great stuff. Vanguard of what bluegrass will become.

PEV: On the day of a show are there any special rituals you have to do or superstitions you have for a good show?

TS: Not really. PEV: How has life on the road been for you? Best and worst parts?

TS: Best part is seeing so many places. I’m a gypsy at heart anyway, so that works out great. Worst part is being away from home. My son is 16 now and I know he won’t be around the house too much longer. Good news is, he’s been selling merch for us!

PEV: What’s one thing we’d be surprised to hear about the members of Blue Highway?

TS: Shawn built the house he lived in by hand in Southwest Virginia. Jason can play jazz fluently on the guitar. Wayne was a truck driver for 18 years before this band started. Rob played on the last two Merle Haggard records and stayed at Merle’s place in California. I played on one song on the upcoming Willie Nelson record on Lost Highway.

PEV: When you are not traveling or performing, what can we find you doing in your down time?

TS: Songwriting. I do a lot of co-writing with folks like Bobby Starnes, Steve Gulley, Kim Williams and Larry Shell, Wood Newton, Ronnie Bowman, Jon Weisberger, Carl Jackson, and others. I’m also hard at work trying to finish a biography of Tony Rice with my co-writer Caroline Wright and starting up a new press, Word of Mouth Press. I also teach at music camps like Nashcamp, CBA Music Camp (California) and most of the other bluegrass-oriented ones. Producing can be fun, as can sessions, playing and recording with folks you don’t usually get to have that experience with. Hang out at my buddy Bobby’s just having a good time. I play chess and like to read also. Get to the gym three or four days a week when I’m home. I’m a big fan of college football and college sports in general. Especially University of Tennessee, a passion kindled in my youth by John Ward, no doubt the greatest announcer in world history.

PEV: In one word, describe Blue Highway.

TS: Original.

PEV: Having released six acclaimed albums, received a GRAMMY nomination, topped the Bluegrass Unlimited radio charts, won a Dove Award and an astonishing 11 International Bluegrass Music Association awards, individually and collectively. What has been the most memorable part of your career as Blue Highway?

TS: This interview. Just kidding… I’d say just hearing the new songs that everyone has cached when we get together to work on a new record. I can just hear this stuff coming together to make a unique product.

PEV: What is next for Blue Highway?

TS: Just see how this new record does and learn to deal with the new climate of the music business. Our website is getting a major makeover (thanks to Betty Wheeler and the FINE folks at Ciphertek.com). We’ve been together 14 years and I think the best music is ahead of us.

For more information on Blue Highway, check out www.BlueHighwayBand.com

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