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Wednesday, 06 February 2008 00:00

Bluegrass’ contemporary class

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The term “contemporary bluegrass” is open to a ridiculous amount of interpretation. For some it signifies anything that strays even a little beyond the template set by Ralph Stanley, Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs — which means that damn near everything we hear nowadays that falls under the heading of bluegrass is “contemporary.”

For others it’s the work of artists like Mountain Heart and Alison Krauss, who retain the core elements of the style but are unafraid to push at, and often break, the boundaries. But while on that subject, inevitably the whole “newgrass” thing comes up, and it’s probably not even worth the effort to start dissecting that one.

Suffice to say that if any group of musicians could comfortably fit under the umbrella of “contemporary” (in the best sense) it’s probably Blue Highway. Looking back on the band’s history, you’ll see that many of them spent time playing in bands with a diverse set of artists from the cream of the bluegrass crop. And by the end of Through The Window Of A Train it’s obvious that the lessons learned backing up luminaries like Ricky Skaggs, Larry Sparks and — yep — Alison Krauss have served the band well.

There’s the writing, which for the most part sticks to tried and true themes of heartache, traveling and spirituality. But dig in a little and you’ll find telling social commentary in songs like “Homeless Man” and “Two Soldiers.” Instrumentally, the band displays an effortlessness and fire that’s hard to match, and even better — they play like a band, not a bunch of hired on session aces. From an audio standpoint Blue Highway made Through The Window Of A Train a truly “hands-on” project, producing it themselves and wisely avoiding any semblance of overproduced slickness that plagues many newer bluegrass albums. But they also don’t go overboard to recreate the “bunch of guys standing around a microphone” shtick either. Every instrument, every voice fits together like finely cut puzzle pieces. Nothing more, nothing less.

Opening with “Life Of A Travelin’ Man,” the band wastes no time getting to the good stuff when guitarist Shawn Lane and Dobro man Rob Ickes trade licks over the instrumental bridge. An early highlight is “Sycamore Hollow,” which spins a tale of kidnapping and vengeance during the Civil War, with a hypnotic, almost modal solo section that finds the band flexing their considerable arranging muscles. It’s interesting to note that most of these songs were assembled in the studio, and the completeness of the arrangements is another reminder of how well these musicians play off of one another.

Two of the most powerful tunes here are the previously mentioned “Homeless Man” and “Two Soldiers.” The former paints the portrait of a Vietnam vet that fell upon the hardest of times, poor beyond poor, disconnected from his family and forgotten by his country. The latter is a poignant and timely story of the crisply dressed soldiers assigned the duty of delivering the worst of news to military families at home. Tim Stafford’s warm but matter of fact delivery, along with some excellent lyrics, never over-romanticizes the subject matter. “A Week From Today” explains the plight of an aging convict that’s spent so much of his life in prison that he can’t fathom a life without stone walls and iron bars around him.

Respite from such heavy stuff comes in the form of a burning instrumental cut, “The North Cove,” which enters with a sinuous unison melody line for banjo and fiddle, and follows with a series of extended solos that allows for each player to get some good jabs in. Here the band tempers barn-burning technique with thoughtful melodic command, culminating in a tune with more to chew on than just the whiz-bang pyrotechnics of many modern bluegrass instrumentals.

Through The Window Of A Train hits the shelf on Feb. 12, and the band has already embarked on one heck of a tour, with stops in Johnson City, Tenn., and the granddaddy of all music festivals, Merlefest, in April. Both perfect opportunities to catch this one of a kind band up close and personal.

(Chris Cooper can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. )

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