“Some Day: The Fifteenth Anniversary Collection” by Blue Highway

Blue Highway
Some Day: The Fifteenth Anniversary Collection
Rounder Records
3.5 stars (out of 5)

Let me start by saying that I’m well aware that no one and nothing can compare to The Band in any substantive way, but you’ll indulge me here so I can describe one of the best bluegrass music units of the last couple of of decades.

I’ve always thought of Blue Highway as being the bluegrass version of The Band, with three compelling lead vocalists—Wayne Taylor (bass), Shawn Lane (mandolin, fiddle) and Tim Stafford (guitar)—corresponding to Levon Helm, Richard Manuel and Rick Danko of The Band, with Jason Burleson (banjo) and Rob Ickes (resonator guitar) mirroring organist Garth Hudson and guitarist Robbie Robertson.

Also, Blue Highway’s music, like The Band’s, has the felicitous effect of being influenced by countless sources while sounding unlike anything else. I won’t stretch the comparison further, but you get the idea: Blue Highway is versatile, skilled and their whole is noticeably greater than the sum of its highly talented parts.

This collection does a fairly good job of presenting the band at their best, even though the collection, despite the subtitle, only reaches back to Still Climbing Mountains, their 2001 debut on Rounder Records. (To get a full and proper appreciation of the band, you simply have to go back to their first four albums: It’s a Long, Long Road (1995), Wind to the West (1996) and Midnight Storm (1998) on Rebel Records and Blue Highway (1999) on Ceili Records.)

That Rounder debut is well-represented by Lane’s lead vocals on the soaring title track, the apocalyptic “The Seventh Angel,” which features Alison Krauss on backing vocal and “Monrobro,” in which Ickes captures the essence of Bill Monroe’s sound on an instrument that the Father apparently described as “no part of nothin’.”

Ickes’ amazing talent is also spotlighted on “Elzic’s Farewell,” a tradition fiddle tune adapted for his 2004 solo album Big Time, on which he was backed by the rest of Blue Highway.

“Wondrous Love” and “Seven Sundays in a Row” come from the group’s all-gospel Wondrous Love (2003) and are two of the best gospel tracks recorded by anyone in bluegrass music over the last few years, the former featuring a sweeping emotion of praise, the latter a simple description of faith in action. Both benefit from striking lead vocals from Taylor, the best singer of the three lead vocalists, if you had to pick one.

Stafford’s lone lead vocal on this collection—one of its few flaws—is the propulsive Mark Knopfler tune “Marbletown” from the 2005 album of the same name, while Lane’s “Wild Urge to Ramble” from the same disc is also included.

Written by Stafford and Steve Gulley, “Through the Window of a Train” is a near-perfect song sung by Taylor and taken from the 2008 album of the same name. “Sycamore Hollow” is also from that disc, but should have been left off this one, as Lane’s vocals are ill-matched for a lower register, resulting in perhaps the only Blue Highway track I know of that I always skip when it comes on.

“Cold and Lowdown Lonesome Blues,” however, has Lane back on top of his game and is one of the three tracks newly recorded for this project that truly belong in the Blue Highway canon. Second is “Bleeding for a Little Peace of Mind,” cowritten by Stafford and singer-songwriter Darrell Scott and featuring Scott on inimitable lead vocals and playing the part of Bob Dylan to Blue Highway’s The Band, if I can stretch that analogy one more time.

“Some Day” is a re-recording of the a cappella gospel hit from Midnight Storm, which, even in its new form, still sends chills up the spine and reminds you that Blue Highway is truly worthy of this compilation, as well as others that will no doubt follow after whatever else the band has in store for the next fifteen years.

by Aaron Keith Harris

[Editor’s note (3-14-10): Someone closely associated with this project recently e-mailed me to ask about the 3.5-star rating I gave this project. Basically, my thinking was this: “greatest hits” or “best of” projects naturally have a half point or whole point knocked off, either because they didn’t pick the tracks I would have, or because they leave out tracks from an artist’s career that were recorded for other record companies. In this case, both reasons were part of my thinking: I would have liked more lead vocals from Tim Stafford and Wayne Taylor, and the fact that this project, by its nature, couldn’t include the band’s Rebel and Ceili recordings, which are such a big part of their estimable recorded output, make it less than a 5-star value when considering whether to purchase it on CD. The smart buy would be to get the newly released tracks individually on iTunes and apply the rest of your cash toward one or two full albums from their past. However, if you just want one CD to get acquainted with this truly great band, you can’t do better than this one, no matter what I rated it.]

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