Posts Tagged ‘Rob Ickes’

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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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Cousin Curly in the Temple of Twang

12 April 2011

Before I get all distracted, let me show you this edition’s video, which comes from my travels to Nashville last spring…

From a certain point of view, the Ryman Auditorium could be seen as a microcosm of Nashville. Like the Music City as a whole, the Ryman is a really nice place that seems to hide its deep connection to bluegrass. While the back of the building is lined with display cases, you have to go to the third floor to find any significant bluegrass-related material. In some respects this isn’t a surprise, in that the Ryman hosts all manner of performances today, from Aretha Franklin to ZZ Top. But while I’m sure that ticket sales for bluegrass acts aren’t keeping the auditorium’s pews polished to a fare thee well, I reckon that the streams of pilgrims who are paying close to twenty bucks for the backstage tour are primarily drawn by the venue’s storied past. No doubt many grew up listening to the Grand Ole Opry, which called the Ryman home for several decades. If I’m correct about all that, it would follow that a good number of these are folks interested in an era when bluegrass was an integral part of the operation. So what gives?

But as I say, I found Nashville puzzling in the same way. A quick rundown of musicians based in Nashville reads like a directory of present-day bluegrass:

Alison Brown, Roland White, Bryan Sutton, Jerry Douglas, Jim Buchanan, Josh Williams, Valerie Smith, The Steeldrivers, Ron Block, Blake Williams,  Ricky Skaggs, Mark Schatz, Jerry Salley, Keith Tew, Gail Davies, The Infamous String Dusters, Melonie Canon, Casey Driessen, Sam Bush, Gillian Welch,  Daily & Vincent, John Weisberger, Dierks Bentley, Kathy Chiavola, Mike Bub, Larry Sparks, Tim Carter, Paul Brewster, Ronnie Reno, Tim O’Brien, Billy & Terry Smith, Fred Carpenter, Doug Dillard,  Tim May, Wayne Southards, Brad Davis, Barry & Holly Tashian, David Crow, Kevin Williamson, John Cowan, Mike Compton, Tim Hensley, Larry Cordle, Marty Raybon, Sharon Cort, Keith Sewell, The Chigger Hill Boys, Stuart Duncan, David Talbot, Ed Dye, The Grascals, Pat Enright, Scott Vestal, Donna Ulisse, The Farewell Drifters, Marty Stuart, Rickie Simpkins, Pat Flynn, Kim Fox, Pam Gadd, J.T. Gray, Tom T. Hall, Aubrey Haynie, Casey Henry, Tom Saffell, Randy Howard, Jim Hurst, Rob Ickes, Eddie Stubbs, Vic Jordan, Cody Kilby, Randy Kohrs, Alison Krauss, Jim Lauderdale, David Grier, Keith Little, Ned Luberecki, Del McCoury, James & Angela McKinney, Larry McNeely, Luke McNight, Ken Mellons, Patty Mitchell, Alan O’Bryant, Bobby Osborne, Heartstrings, The Overall Brothers, Continental Divide, David Peterson, Missy Raines, Lee & Elaine Roy, Carl Jackson, Darrell Scott, Jimmy Campbell, Ronnie McCoury, Larry Perkins, Larry Stephenson, Jim Van Cleve, Terry Eldridge, Andrea Zonn.

Whew. That’s just a start; I’ll bet there are literally hundreds more worth noting.  Even so, the music itself doesn’t even register as background noise. During my visit, I would regularly spin the radio dial from one end to the other. I never heard so much as a note that sounded like bluegrass. I know there is a vibrant house party scene in the Nashville bluegrass community, but that doesn’t explain why bluegrass isn’t a more visible— or, more the point, audible— part of the landscape.

But don’t get me wrong: I really like Nashville. As long as the Cumberland River behaves itself, it’s an elegant metropolis that also manages to be comfortable and friendly. Can’t wait for my next visit, by which time I hope I will have been granted the secret password and welcomed into Nashville’s occult (in every sense of the word) bluegrass scene.

Yer Pal— Curly

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