Posts Tagged ‘Blue Highway’

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Blue Ridge Mountain Girl

2 February 2014

Sorry, that recent cold snap had me in a state of cryonic suspension from which I have but lately awakened. Without further ado, something to warm even the coldest heart—

That there is Jenni Lyn Gardner, appearing not with her usual bandmates from Della Mae, but with The Palmetto Bluegrass Band. The PBB consists of Kyle Tuttle on banjo, Nick DiSebastian on guitar and Josh Dayton on bass. If you like what you just heard, check out our earlier post from these good folks.

“Blue Ridge Mountain Girl” was written by the veteran songwriting team of Holyfield and Leigh. It appeared on the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s 1987 release, “Hold On.” In bluegrass circles, the tune was popularized by Blue Highway on their first album, “It’s a Long, Long Road.” It was this version that brought the song to Jenni Lyn’s attention, and it clearly still evokes tender memories for her. As she recalled recently—

My dad had a radio show that I would often co-host when I was a little girl and this is the song that I chose to play, every single time. It has stuck with me all this time and I enjoy singing it— even if it is from a man’s perspective.

The Palmetto Band’s interpretation of the song summons a lot of the spirit of Blue Highway without slavishly following that band’s version. Nick DiSebastian’s guitar solo takes the place of Rob Ickes’ dobro break, and his elegant cross-picking puts a smile on my face every time I hear it.

We recorded this informal session with Jenni Lyn & Co. at last year’s Joe Val Bluegrass Festival. This year’s edition of that frosty fest is right around the corner. Like triathletes in training, pickers all over New England are prepping for Joe Val, winding their clocks back and trying to get their sleep regimen pared down to just a few naps during the daylight hours. It’s not a routine for the faint-hearted, but as I trust we have demonstrated with this post, the compensations are many, including the knowledge that at any hour, in any corner of the Framingham Sheraton, music magic can happen.

Yers— Curly

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Town Mountain Shares the Good Times

8 August 2013

Town Mountain, the hot young quintet based in Asheville, North Carolina, seems to be having a good summer. They’ve been gigging around the country and were featured in the July 2013 issue of Bluegrass Unlimited. Here’s a crowd-pleasing number from the group that delivers plenty of sunny vibes, suitable for a group on the rise, or just a warm summer night:

The tune is “Sugar Mama,” and it was penned by the group’s mandolin player, Phil Barker. It appears on the band’s 2011 release, “Steady Operator,” and should not be confused with at least two different blues and sundry other compositions of the same name.

We’ve featured three original numbers from Town Mountain over the past several months, and it’s worth noting that each song was written by a different member of the group. Last year, in a piece on the veteran group Blue Highway, I opined that part of the secret of that outfit’s longevity lay in the fact that so many of its members wrote material for the band. This might lessen the likelihood of any player feeling like a fifth wheel. If I’m correct in this theory, then Town Mountain has a long and promising career still ahead.

As has been the case with many of our recent clips, the entire series of Town Mountain videos was edited by Adam Lawrence. Like Town Mountain, both Adam and I hail from North Carolina, so working on this trilogy has been like old home week. I really appreciate Adam’s contributions.

Yer Pal— Curly

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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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Blue Highway’s Endurance Test

12 September 2012

A Winning Team

Bluegrass bands can sometimes seem like baseball teams: they go out to play for a season, then they come back home and “rebuild”, firing or trading a few team members. Come spring, they take to the field again, trying to sell the public on a new line-up. This has emphatically not been the game plan of Blue Highway, one of the most enduring acts in bluegrass. The same members have been playing together now for over seventeen years. Small wonder then that their sound is so burnished and their stage presence so relaxed and assured. Have a listen to the title cut from their recent album Sounds of Home (this video is from their performance at last winter’s Joe Val Bluegrass Festival):

To the outside observer at least, Blue Highway seems like a confederation of equals. On stage, several members sing lead and solos are evenly distributed. Behind the scenes, songwriting duties are again shared. Finally, each member seems to have a robust life apart from the band. They record solo projects, work as sidemen and even write books.

It’s easy to imagine how these very characteristics could be the ingredients for infighting and rivalry, but in Blue Highway’s case they seem to have fostered a sense of mutual respect and stability.

The Recombinant Theory of Bluegrass

The longevity of Blue Highway does make you wonder about the tenuous nature of so many other bluegrass unions. Without straining my feeble brain, I can think of a handful of acts that have broken up or had line-up changes over just the past couple of months. Why is professional bluegrass like an orgy without the sex— folks pairing up or parting company on an hourly basis?*

I think there are two unrelated reasons for the mix-and-match nature of the bluegrass scene. First, the music lends itself to quickly forged partnerships. At the outset, bluegrass was grounded in simple and oft repeated patterns. Any biography or memoir of the founders of the genre features a bewildering cavalcade of pickers. Bill Monroe’s Bluegrass Boys was just the best known of many outfits that operated like a revolving door. Because they shared the same musical language and a common canon of tunes, the performers could start making music together right out of the gate.

Tim Stafford of Blue Highway

It’s interesting to note that, even though the music has evolved considerably over the years, the top bluegrass musicians retain this ability to jump right in. Over the summer, I heard the fiddler Mike Barnett sit in with David Grisman and Sierra Hull. Barnett, whose home base is the Boston band The Deadly Gentlemen, was able to hang tough with Grisman and Hull even though their compositions often diverged from the roster of Officially Sanctioned Bluegrass Chords. As others have pointed out before me, the development of bluegrass parallels that of jazz. These days, adept young pickers seem to be able to navigate their way through complex chord progressions in much the same way that a jazz player can breeze through a chart. In any case, the protean talents of bluegrass pros are certainly a reason that their musical careers can often resemble speed dating.

Then there are purely practical considerations. Even at the highest level, profit margins in bluegrass are mighty slim. There are plenty of times when musicians have to part company simply to keep a roof over their heads or to feed a family. Again, check out those bluegrass biographies and memoirs: you’ll often come across passages that go something like, “After we finished the tour of Japan, Eddie went back to work in his family’s furniture moving business.”

There’s a corollary to this problem as well, which is that there aren’t enough bucks to be made in bluegrass to entice most dysfunctional partnerships to suck it up and keep rolling along, despite their differences.

Viewed against this long history of musical promiscuity, Blue Highway’s enduring partnership is all the more remarkable.

Yer Pal— Curly

* Please God, let me be right about the “without the sex” part.

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Let Us Now Praise Famous Dives, Part 2: The Station Inn

27 June 2011

Summer, the season for sequels, has officially arrived. Those mobs at the cineplexes who have turned out to see The Hangover 2 or Cars 2 have not gone unnoticed by yer Cousin Curly. It seems that today’s perspiring public wants nothing more than, well, more of the same, and who am I to argue? In this spirit, I offer up the following summer bluegrass blockbuster…

Those of you following this space closely know that I’m a great fan of The Cantab Lounge, New England’s Mecca for Bluegrass and other roots music. When I posted my paean to that venerable institution, I called it “Let Us Now Praise Famous Dives, Part 1,” knowing that I had a “Part 2” lined up.

That was in May of last year. Nothing like just-in-time delivery, is there?

Anyhow, the long wait is over. Popcorn is optional…

Not all the music at the Station Inn is bluegrass, but much of it “demonstrates bluegrassish tendencies,” as the doctors like to say. In addition to the famous names mentioned in the video, here’s a sample of the performers who have appeared at the Inn over the past few years: The Red Stick Ramblers, Kimberly Williams, Blue Highway, Dierks Bentley, Roland White and Shawn Camp. Special mention should be made of The Cluster Pluckers and The Mashville Brigade, a couple of “supergroups” of Nashville musicians who are or were fixtures on the scene.

Going a bit farther back, no less a figure than Bill Monroe himself trod the Inn’s humble stage. You could make a movie about this place’s many brushes with fame, and it appears that one Patrick Isbey has done just that. Click here to see a clip from his documentary, The Station Inn: True Life Bluegrass.

Although our beloved Cantab can’t claim the international recognition afforded the Station Inn, otherwise these two joints feel like twins separated by nothing more than distance. They share a complete lack of pretense that can’t be imitated or approximated. Their very ordinariness makes them special.

Yer Pal— Curly

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