Blue Highway "The Game" Rounder Records
I've likely written about Blue Highway eight or nine times in the past fifteen years. I believe I've reviewed each of their albums since their 2001 Rounder debut, "Still Climbing Mountains," and I've critiqued their live performances two or three times. Further, I've written reviews on solo and duet projects another four or five times.
I find them the hardest bluegrass band to write about.
There is little to nothing of substance to criticize the band about. Without being staid, predictable, or tiresome, they are one of the smoothest bluegrass bands I've encountered. Everything they touch is presented to the highest degree of bluegrass musicianship, and their vocal blend- lead and harmony parts- is distinctively astounding.
While bluegrass bands may approach and perhaps even surpass their levels of execution- if such can be measured- no one sounds like Blue Highway, and no one this side of the Del McCoury Band- in my opinion- has consistently delivered 'the goods' album in, album out, concert after concert, year after year.
Blue Highway is the benchmark to which other contemporary bluegrass bands should measure themselves.
With "The Game," their tenth album, Blue Highway- Jason Burleson (banjo, guitar, mandolin), Rob Ickes (Dobro), Shawn Lane (mandolin, guitar, fiddle, vocals), Tim Stafford (guitar, vocals), and Wayne Taylor (bass, vocals)- again extend themselves to the highest levels of instrumental and vocal performance.
Blue Highway is the Dire Straits of the bluegrass world. That they are visionary and eloquent is without doubt- everything is perfect, and there doesn't appear to be anything placed in the mixed by chance; as a result, some will argue that the music isn't exciting and spontaneous. I would politely suggest those people are missing the point of bluegrass played at this level.
From the first notes of the album's lead, title cut, through the bulk of the set and their final resounding performance of the mournful Hicks's Farewell, Blue Highway is offering listeners the opportunity to set aside their challenges and frustrations, familial joys and daily blessings, and allow themselves to be fully immersed in a musical experience that is rife with wonderfully written original pieces and startlingly clear instrumental and vocal mastery.
Guest vocalist Trey Hensley provides a showstopper in My Last Day in the Mine (a co-write between Taylor and Stafford) a song liner note writer Jewly Hight correctly identifies as "Haggard-esque" in its eloquence. This is directly followed by another incredible song, one that assumes a different perspective within a similar 'working' theme, Lane's Just to Have a Job.
Blue Highway has repeatedly demonstrated that they know how to choose a lead track (consider I Ain't Gonna Lay My Hammer Down, Life of a Travelin' Man, Marbletown, and Wind to the West), and The Game is no exception. Co-written with Union Station bass man Barry Bales, Lane shares the tale of a long ago rambler bound toward an untimely end.
Remind Me of You, containing a nod to The Eagles, is a Stafford-Craig Market co-write (their Bluebird Days was a highlight of the previous "Sounds of Home" album) and is a good candidate for radio play, as is the deceptively bright Church Bell Wedding Blues.
Playing to their instrumental strengths, both Jason Burleson (with Dogtown) and Ickes (with the lively Celtic kick of Funny Farm) are provided instrumental showcases which, rather than isolating the featured instruments better reflect the collaborative ensemble spirit that the band exemplifies.
"The Game," written, arranged, sung, and played seemingly effortlessly, is another brilliant album from Blue Highway, arguably the bluegrass industry's strongest outfit. That outside of Rob Ickes the band seldom receives award recognition- they were the International Bluegrass Music Association's Vocal Group of the Year in 2012- simply adds to their reputation as understated masters of the genre.
"The Game" provides ample evidence that Blue Highway remain at the top of their game.