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Members include Tom Adams (joined group, 1999), banjo; Jason Burleson, banjo; Rob Ickes, dobro; Shawn Lane, fiddle, mandolin; Tim Stafford, guitar; Wayne Taylor, upright bass. Addresses: Record company--Ceili Music, P.O. Box 2478, Hendersonville, TN 37077; Rounder Records, One Camp St., Cambridge, MA 02140. Management--Keith Case and Associates, 1025 17th Ave. South, 2nd Floor, Nashville, TN 37212. Website--Blue Highway Official Website: http://www.bhighway.com.

The Kingsport, Tennessee-based bluegrass band Blue Highway is noted for its blend of classic bluegrass with original songwriting, rich vocals, and award-winning musicianship. Formed in 1995, the band and its members have won critical praise and numerous awards.

Blue Highway's founder Tim Stafford grew up in eastern Tennessee, where bluegrass music was a cultural tradition. He told Chris Rimlinger in the Rocky Mountain News, "You could look out the window of my high school and see [award-winning bluegrass musician] Doyle Lawson's mother's house, and the [bluegrass band] Country Gentlemen's bus would pull up there every now and then." In high school, Stafford played drums, but when some friends of his started playing bluegrass and invited him to play with them, he decided to learn to play banjo. He dreamed of becoming a professional bluegrass player but never thought he would be good enough.

He did, in fact, become good enough. By the 1980s, he was playing as a road musician with Dusty Miller, the Boys in the Band, and the Hazel Dickens Band. Stafford and two other members of Dusty Miller's band were recruited to play with Alison Krauss and her band Union Station; they toured with her for two years and played on her Grammy Award-winning album Every Time You Say Goodbye. Touring with Krauss and her band proved tiring, and by May of 1992, Stafford decided to take a break from the constant traveling. He quit touring to teach at the Center for Appalachian Studies at East Tennessee University.

Founded Blue Highway

By 1995 Stafford was ready to hit the road again and gathered some stellar players to form a new band, Blue Highway. The band included Stafford; Rob Ickes, a skilled dobro player who had played on the Grammy Award-winning Great Dobro Sessions with Jerry Douglass; singer Shawn Lane, who had performed with Ricky Skaggs and Doyle Lawson; bass player Wayne Taylor; and banjo player Jason Burleson. The band took its name from the blue lines that mark rural roads on state maps.

Their first album, It's a Long, Long Road, was number one on the Bluegrass Unlimited charts for five months, and its title song was number one on the magazine's singles chart for three months. Two other tracks from the album spent a total of six months in the Bluegrass Unlimited top ten. The album won the International Bluegrass Music Association (IBMA) Album of the Year Award and the group the Emerging Artist of the Year Award in 1996. Rob Ickes won the Dobro Player of the Year Award. In addition to the members' outstanding musicianship, part of the album's success came from the fact that it blends traditional bluegrass with "newgrass": more progressive, energetic songs. In addition, instead of the nasal "high lonesome sound" of traditional singers, Stafford, Taylor, and Lane sing with full, clear, and often soaring voices.

Regarding the album's success, Stafford told Keith Lawrence in the Austin American-Statesman, "I was shocked. But if most bluegrass fans are like me, they're always eager for something new." He told Rimlinger that the praise the album received was exciting. "I'm more involved in what the band's doing. We're on our way to being a 'full-time band.' My goal is to have a good time. I get tremendous joy being able to play with this group of guys."

Wind to the West and Midnight Storm

Fans received something new in 1996, when the band's second album, Wind to the West, was released. It was a balanced presentation of traditional songs and new material written by members of the band, including gospel tunes and hard-luck stories. Blue Highway spent that year touring, playing at bluegrass festivals in the northeast and west of the United States. Stafford told Lawrence that he was pleased to see a shift in the fan base: it was beginning to include many more young people. "Bluegrass has several stigmas," he remarked. "One is that it's old people's music. And that's not true." In 1997 the band won the IBMA's Gospel Recorded Performance of the Year Award for "God Moves in a Windstorm," which appears on Wind to the West.

In 1998 Blue Highway released Midnight Storm. They were also nominated for both the IBMA Entertainer of the Year Award and the Best Instrumental Group Award. Their song "I'd Rather Be a Lonesome Pine" was nominated for Song of the Year, and Midnight Storm was nominated for Album of the Year. At the Country Standard Time website, a reviewer wrote that in this album, the band "reaches a maturity ... and establishes a sound totally their own."

Blue Highway

On Blue Highway, produced by Ricky Skaggs's new label, Ceili, the band presents a variety of bluegrass, gospel, and old-timey tunes, with guest vocals by Alison Krauss, Lee Ann Womack, and Skaggs. Some songs are traditional, and others are new. The song "Clay and Ottie" tells the story of a man who dies while working far from home; his family must sell their farm to pay for his body to be shipped back home. "I Am Near the Gate" is a gospel quartet written by Lane. The band also presents covers of some unexpected tunes, such as Sting's "I Hung My Head," which a reviewer in Bluegrass Unlimited described as "soaring, ferocious ... modern bluegrass at its very best." The single "Troubles Up and Down the Road" hit number one on the Bluegrass Now chart, and so did the album as a whole. The Bluegrass Unlimited reviewer commented, "Everything here meshes like fine clockwork, as solo instrumental intros blend seamlessly into a full bluegrass band sound, and vocalists mirror each other's harmonies like lifelong partners." And in a Country Standard Time review, Jon Weisberger wrote that although the guest musicians "add a special shine" to the album, "it's not really needed; these boys do just fine all by themselves."

Still Climbing Mountains

In 2002 the band released a new album, Still Climbing Mountains, which included all original material--no traditional songs. As Chris Simmons remarked at the Rambles website, "Besides classical, bluegrass is the only form of music I can think of in which ... an album consisting entirely of original material is a radical concept." Although some listeners might have viewed this as an affront to bluegrass's deep sense of tradition, Simmons noted that since the band has "some of the best songwriters in the business," it was only fitting that they make room for their own material. "I say this is great for bluegrass," Simmons remarked. Although the songs are new, the material draws from time-honored sources: a miners' strike, an epic horse race, gospel songs, a lover's death. In Country Standard Time, reviewer Kevin Oliver praised the band's leap to all-new material, commenting, "In an era where most of their peers are busy recycling the classics and rediscovering traditional fare, Blue Highway have come up with a 14-track album of all-original tunes--an almost unheard-of feat when it comes to bluegrass."

In a review from New Country posted at the band's website, Stafford lamented the fact that bluegrass is often associated with negative images, such as The Beverly Hillbillies and the frightening movie Deliverance. He told Lawrence, "I'd like to see more bluegrass in commercials and on television. Unless it's more of the hayseed image. People would rather believe in stereotypes than reality."

by Kelly Winters

Blue Highway's Career

Group formed, 1995; released It's a Long, Long Road, 1995; released Wind to the West, 1996; released Midnight Storm, 1998; released Blue Highway, 1999; released Still Climbing Mountains, 2002.

Blue Highway's Awards

International Bluegrass Music Association (IBMA), Gospel Recorded Performance of the Year Award for "God Moves in a Windstorm," 1997; IBMA, Emerging Artist of the Year Award, Album of the Year Award for It's a Long, Long Road, 1996; Rob Ickes: IBMA, Dobro Player of the Year Award, 1996-2001.

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