Besides being the only bluegrass band named after a song from "Rebel Yell," Blue Highway is best known for their remarkable consistency. Taking 'smooth' to another level, the frequent IBMA nominees return with what I count as their thirteenth album celebrating their 25th year as a leading bluegrass outfit.
The core of the band remains Shawn Lane (mandolin, fiddle, guitar, and vocals,) Tim Stafford (guitar and vocals,) Wayne Taylor (bass and vocals,) and Jason Burleson (banjo, mandolin, guitar, and vocals,) with Gary Hultman (resophonic guitar and vocals) making his debut. Rare is the bluegrass band that has all vocalists singing, but Blue Highway has always gone above and beyond expectations.
With the exception of long-time reso player Rob Ickes, no member of Blue Highway has won an individual IBMA award for instrumentation or singing; insert head-shaking emoji. Similarly, they have been recognized as Vocal Group of the Year only once (2012) and never as Instrumental Group or Entertainer of the Year; meanwhile, the passing flavours of the genre appear and fade, taking hardware with them. No mind, as Blue Highway is built for the long haul:the industry will figure that out eventually. Or it won't.
"Somewhere Far Away" does not deviate from the majority of Blue Highway's albums. The music seldom accelerates beyond an easy lope, ideal for their lyrically-rich, poetically charged, narrative songs. They studiously avoid bluegrass tropes-sad songs that sound happy, 'shave and a haircut' codas, relational horror stories-in favour of articulate vignettes of troubled souls and loners, as well as the enlightened who actually have figured it out. The later is represented by Stafford and Steve Gulley's "I Already Do," a sketch of what happens when the real estate developer comes offering wealth and possibility to the man who possesses clarity of reason. Beautiful song-no murder or angst; rather, the satisfaction of knowing wealth is found in the land and the fulfilment it provides.
Lane and Gerald Ellenburg's "A Place I've Never Seen" and Stafford and Bobby Starnes' "In Texas Tonight" provide brief snapshots into the experiences of those who have found fulfilment within themselves and with those who surround them, perhaps seeking more but never forsaking those they have.
While almost every song on "Somewhere Far Away" touches on faith of one type or another-faith in self (the bittersweet "A Place I've Never Seen,") in family (the trust found "In Texas Tonight,") in the past (the pull of "Dear Kentucky")-Blue Highway always have songs of their Christian faith represented on their albums. Lane's "Life Song" and Taylor's "That Sounds Like More Like Heaven To Me" are sure to provide guidance and encouragement to those seeking comfort and fellowship through song.
Perhaps more than other than any other contemporary bluegrass band, Blue Highway embraces images of America's historical frontier spirit. "Both Ends of the Train," "Cochise County," "A Place I've Never Seen," and "In Texas Tonight" provide this album's 'western spirit.' Still, most satisfying may be Taylor and Stafford's relatively unvarnished "Ain't No Better, Ain't No Worse," the album's breeziest sounding track, but one delivering a fairly substantial missive: "I can see my future living in the past." Hultman takes a nice break within.
Similarly, "I Can't Think of One" is a near-country song made for radio, a concise 'head in hands' bluegrass number 'bout a guy left bitter by experience. Burleson's instrumental "Orville's Webb" is a lively tune, and Lane provides some fine fiddle on this one.
Blue Highway should be past the point of having to prove anything; after all, they have pretty much done everything a bluegrass band can do. No resting on their laurels for this quintet: Somewhere Far Away reveals a confident, powerhouse band steadily achieving greater levels of excellence, striving to improve and sharpen their musical legacy.
As always, fine and insightful liner notes (Larry Nager), full credits and lyrics are included within the CD packaging.
42 minutes of bluegrass perfection, says me.