Friday, March 7, 2008

Blue Highway, "Through the Window of a Train" - Review

Blue Highway was founded in 1994 by Tim Stafford and Wayne Taylor. Rob Ickes, Shawn Lane, and finally Jason Burleson came on board. Both Stafford on guitar and as a songwriter and Ickes on resonator guitar have won numerous awards, as has the band as a whole. The band has garnered awards from both the major bluegrass organizations as well as some Grammy nominations. Tim Stafford won a Grammy with Allison Kraus on "Every Time You Say Goodbye." Ickes is one of three resonphonic guitar players to have won the IBMA Dobro player of the year award. The band has remained at the forefront of bluegrass music, at once honoring the traditions of the music and finding new ground to explore musically and in their content. The band manages to be progressive and traditional at once. On stage they focus on their singing while managing to be amusing and enjoyable in their showmanship. They entertain while never assuming about or insulting their audience. Their songs and CDs have been consistent and this one is no exception. In fourteen years Blue Highway has produced eight albums. From the Window of a Train is the latest. Many bluegrass albums long for a past that never was or celebrate a faded and lost world that can’t be recaptured. Blue Highway’s songs present a starker and more realistic picture of a difficult and lost world where hope can still be found.

Wayne Taylor

On this CD there are twelve new songs, each written by members of the band. The CD kicks off with Jason Burleson’s lonely banjo solo suggesting a thoughtful and lost moment of contemplation. Life on the road must be really difficult or there wouldn’t be so many road songs in the catalog of bluegrass bands. Shawn Lane’s “Life of a Travelin’ Man” captures the ceaseless demands of the road while trying to meet the responsibilities of home and family:

Get the yard cut down and the babies fed

A million songs runnin’ through my head

Daylight comes I’ll be gone again

When does the highway ever end?

Rob Ickes resophonic solo picks up the loneliness and attraction of the road at once, complementing Lane’s plaintive love-hate relationship with the road. The image of lightning emphasizes the dark and stormy nature of the road, yet the singer doesn’t want to leave the life. A good road song is always an attractive way to introduce an album.

Tim Stafford

Through the Window of a Train, co-written by Tim Stafford and Steve Gulley and sung by Wayne Taylor also captures images of life passing by, but from a somewhat different perspective than the previous song. Seeing the world “through the window of a train” suggests a sense of separation from the world as it passes by without being involved in it in any real fashion.

I don’t expect you all to understand

Or see the country like a railroad man

So many things you’ll never realize

Unless you see ‘em with these eyes.

For the railroad man, life goes on, but being involved in it isn’t a part of his life. In the end everything looks the same and the speaker is always looking back. The bounciness of the music belies the essential emptiness of the speaker’s life, perhaps a characteristic of such road songs. The impermanence of life along the way with no real roots or ties to the land are seen through the window of a train without ever having to stop to make commitments or stay to experience the results of living life outside a frame.

Shawn Lane

Ickes opening chords let us know a tragedy is coming in Sycamore Hollow. Written by Shawn Lane and Gerald Ellenburg, this murder song captures the desperation of threatemed love, danger, and death as do the best of such tunes. This one is further complicated by the loved one’s double abduction, first away from her father and later from her husband by a soldier in Sherman’s army. No force can stop the singer from being with the one he loves. This song, unlike so many such songs involving both death and the Civil War has a surprising happy ending.

Jason Burleson

Following Sycamore Hollow with a different kind of song involving the circumstances of war and loss is one of the reasons music lovers should consider buying entire recordings rather than downloading specific tracks. The contrast between these two songs is stark, on the one hand capturing the small victories that can be won, and on the other the loss and desperation of fighting a futile war. In Homeless Man, Wayne Taylor sings:

They took a simple country boy

And taught him how to use a gun

After four long years in service,

Two tours in Vietnam

The country that he served so well

Doesn’t seem to give a damn

That he’s a homeless man.

The keening loneliness of Rob Ickes’ reso combined with the counterpoint of Lane’s deceptively simple mandolin create a quiet elegiac quality to accompany this heartbreaking story of a man destroyed by the war he fought for his country. Accompanied by the later song, Two Soldiers, this song paints a sad picture of what happens to our returning soldiers, regardless of the empty rhetoric about supporting our troops. Taylor’s lyrics, simple and straightforward, speak for themselves.

Rob Ickes

In Where Did the Morning Go? Shawn Lane asks the questions of any aging person looking back on a life, no matter how successful it is.

Where did the morning go?

I meant to do so much more with my life

I was born a clear and sunny day

Now evening shadows fall my way

Where did the morning go?

This song captures what may be one of the signal qualities of this great band. Each picker is a fine musician, a master of his instrument, and yet Blue Highway avoids instrumental pyrotechnics, allowing the lyrics and more simple instrumentation to carry the songs. Their work, especially on this album, seems pared down and stripped of pretense, thus strengthening the power of their music.

Two Soldiers is placed in the middle of this CD and lies at the core of its content. This song describes the team sent to the homes of servicemen who have been killed abroad. It’s their job to inform families of the loss. This song strikes a particularly strong chord for us, because when Irene’s Dad was in the Navy during World War II, this was his job. A quiet and unassuming man, he carried the pain of this experience throughout his life. The song captures the fear and dread the black car and two formally dressed visitors bring with them as they come to visit a family. Written by Tim Stafford and Wood Newton and sung by Tim, the song is a powerful and simple testament to the horrors of war. It is followed by the only instrumental on the CD, The North Cove written by Jason Burleson, whose lead banjo on the piece is powerful. With Shawn on fiddle and Jason providing a blazing banjo, the piece provides a respite in the midst of this powerful set of songs as well as standing on its own. As an instrumental it allows for some of the virtuosity that has been restrained in other cuts by the strong content of this album.

A Week from Today examines the state of mind of an institutionalized prisoner being released from prison fifty years into a ninety-nine year sentence. Written by Tim Stafford and Bobby Starnes and sung by Taylor, the prisoner is completely unlike the typical prison song voice yearning for loved ones outside the prison walls and fleeing in his imagination to them. This prisoner fears the thought of freedom because “the prison cell’s the only home I’ve known.” After all, he’s been there all his adult life. He’s a different person from the man who was sent to jail. The song kicks off with an upbeat mandolin solo at a fast pace. The opening line, “Time is a funny thing, you know,” lowers the listeners resistance and sets up the kicker in which the singer leads us into the four walls and then hits us with the warden. Suddenly we’re facing a new take on the passage of time, completely removed from “Where Did the Morning Go.” The upbeat instrumental is shown to reflect the fear and loss experienced by the singer. The singer concludes “I’ll have to find a way back home,” and the total desperation of his situation is fully revealed. An underlying problem of our entire penal system is shown in this final stanza.

My Ropin’ Days are Done is a cowboy song with echoes of the Streets of Laredo running through it in a subtle homage to traditional cowboy songs. The opening passage on guitar raises reminders of the campfire, strong coffee, and ranch hands singing out their loneliness. Another contemplative song in which the singer voices his nostalgia for the sweat, smell, and tension of the cowboy life while knowing it’s time to head home to his loved one. Stafford again captures the sense of loss, but this time also recognizes that times are changing and his loved one has stood by him through his addiction to the action. The simple background of two guitars and Dobro provide just the right setting for the lyric. “Blues on Blues” is another song of loss and regret by Stafford with Jon Weisberger and Bobby Starnes, capturing the risk of loving and the chance of losing. The bluesy instrumentals with mandolin leading the way supported by banjo and guitar capture the lyrics and reinforce them fully. A V-Bottom Boat cuts through the water’s resistance and takes its passengers straight to the dock. This seemingly simple gospel song suggests simple answers to the difficult questions posed by modern life suggested by “cars, planes, and trains” preferring instead the simple v-bottom boat to find the true course to salvation. Shawn Lane has created a simple and affecting metaphor. The final song, Just Another Gravel in the Road, completes the cycle of thoughtful exploration as Wayne Taylor leads us through the problem of losing a loved one rather than changing one’s self. The singer loses the game of love rather than compromise his life style or principles.

So there it is, a couple of road songs, a murder ballad, some loneliness and loss of self, a soldier song with a twist, a prison song, a cowboy song, a blues, a gospel, and a you can’t change me. It’s like a catalog of bluegrass themes, but each with a new or rethought process making them fresh and interesting. This is a powerful collection of songs eschewing the sunny optimism or stark tragedy of much bluegrass. Rather, it takes an unromantic and nuanced view of some of the difficulties and choices facing us in real life. While it doesn’t necessarily provide solutions, the unblinking look at reality offers fresh insight and thoughtful pictures of life as it’s led at the early part of the 21st century.

Through the Window of a Train by Blue Highway is Rounder Records 11661-0594-1 and can be obtained through Blue Highway’s web site, Rounder Records ,where you can also hear samples, or other recording outlets. This album stands as such a fine work when heard altogether, it would be a shame to download individual cuts to your mp3 player. Purchase the whole thing, sit back and listen, and enjoy!