Patented Blue Highway

2 November 2012

Though some of what follows was written in the dark while I waited out a passing power outage (no joke!), our neck of the woods was largely unscathed by Hurricane Sandy. Even so, what with all the calamity brought upon the land of late, the cry from the chorus of “Marbletown” seems to fit the moment: “We got a man down here! We got a man down!” Here it is then, the third and (for now at least) final installment in our recent series of performances from Blue Highway at this year’s Joe Val Bluegrass Festival:

Blue Highway addresses a range of themes and achieves a spectrum of colors in its repertoire. I’ve always attributed this to the band drawing on multiple sources for its music. There isn’t one songwriter or songwriting team in charge. Even so, there is a particular kind of song that I tend to think of as “patented Blue Highway,” and “Marbletown” is a good example. The ingredients: lots of gritty details drawn from working life, a brooding minor melody, a dash of high and lonesome harmonies. Other tunes that I’d put in this kit bag would include “Union Man” and “Boulder City Dam” from Still Climbing Mountains, “Born with a Hammer in My Hand” and “Don’t Come Out of the Hole,” from Blue Highway,” and “I Ain’t Gonna Lay My Hammer Down” from the group’s latest release, Sounds of Home.

Over its long history, band members Shawn Lane, Tim Stafford and Wayne Taylor have all contributed regularly to the Blue Highway songbook. Knowing this, I started to work out some sort of Lennon/McCartney theory regarding the group’s sound— or sounds. That is to say, I figured that, while some songs were undoubtedly the product of collaboration, a little rooting around would reveal that one guy’s forte was writing the sensitive ballads, another wrote the hard bitten songs of life on the road, another the odes to nature, and so on. The question therefore was: Who was the auteur of that “patented” Blue Highway song described above? Well, I looked up the writing credits on a dozen or so compositions that fit the bill, and guess what? There’s really no pattern. Either individually or in pairs, Lane, Stafford and Taylor wrote many of the songs on the list, and— a drum roll, please— “Marbletown” was written by… Mark Knopfler.

Yes, the erstwhile front man from Dire Straits, the Sultan of Swing himself, Mark Knopfler wrote and recorded “Marbletown” a few years before it showed up on Blue Highway’s record of the same name in 2005. I’m not surprised that Knopfler wrote such a convincing blue collar anthem. He’s always had a great ear for musical and vocal idioms, and though English by birth, he’s spent decades mining (pun intended) the veins of American roots music. What does surprise me is that no one in Blue Highway had a hand in penning the song. With Rob Ickes’ bluesy dobro licks and those keening harmonies, the group makes it so convincingly their own. Clearly, then, “patented Blue Highway” is less a product of any one person’s voice or vision. Rather, it comes from a shared sensibility that, over time, has proven as durable and adamantine as a cold steel spike.

Yer Pal— Curly

P.S.— Special thanks to Paul Villanova for his fine work editing the video featured here, even as his last days as a bachelor wound to a close. And congratulations to Patty and Paul for tying the knot!

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