Blue Highway,
Still Climbing Mountains
(Rounder, 2001)

Besides classical, bluegrass is the only form of music I can think of in which this statement would be true: an album consisting entirely of original material is a radical concept. Many folks will no doubt view Blue Highway's Still Climbing Mountains, with its lack of Monroe/Flatt & Scruggs/Stanley Brothers covers, as some sort of arrogant statement.

For all I know, that may have been the band's intent. It's far more likely, however, that a band made up of some of the best songwriters in the business simply finds it hard to make room on a studio recording for other artists' songs, no matter how much they may enjoy performing those songs in their live performances. I say this is great for bluegrass. With apologies to Ricky Skaggs, the world needs a set of possible new classics a lot more than yet another version of "Rollin' In My Sweet Baby's Arms" or "Dim Lights, Thick Smoke and Loud Loud Music."

That's not to say that every song on Still Climbing Mountains will become a bluegrass standard, but some deserve to. As John Weisburger points out in his liner notes, the members of Blue Highway write about a wider variety of subjects than is common is modern bluegrass, which tends to focus on love-gone-wrong. "Union Man" pulls no punches as it celebrates the miners who dared to organize in the face of armed resistance from the mine owners. "Which side are you on, boys?" the song asks, "The Union standing strong" or the rich man who, "to keep his marble mansion he'll starve your child to death."

"Riding the Danville Pike" is the story of an epic horse race that would have delighted Kentucky boy Bill Monroe. The standout here is "Uncle Fred," written by Tim Stafford about his uncle, Fred Stockton. Rather than paint a sentimental and idealized portrait, Stafford has Uncle Fred simply describe events in his life (after telling how Uncle Fred saw the Carter Family for 15, Stafford cleverly inserts a guitar solo from "You Are My Flower"). "What a time," Uncle Fred would say, recalling the pictures in his mind. The song ends with Stafford visiting Uncle Fred's grave: "'What a time,' I smiled and said/Still got the pictures in my head."

The rest of Still Climbing Mountains offers slightly lesser pleasures, but it's a solid recording throughout. "Life Without You" is a nice take on the perennial bluegrass theme of unfortunately outliving a lover. Rob Ickes and Jason Burleson turn in a pair of sharp instrumentals: the bluesy "Monrobro" (maybe the best instrumental title since the Nashville Bluegrass Band's "Monrobilia") and the hard-charging banjo tune "Buck Hill," respectively. The slightly too-slickly produced title track nevertheless manages to convey an inspirational message of endurance, which gets turned inside-out in the more traditional-sounding "This Ain't the First Time I've Walked in These Shoes."

The only cut that doesn't work is "The Seventh Angel," and not because it strays from the neo-traditional bluegrass Blue Highway does so well -- "Only A Thought Away" would be considered mainstream country in a better world, and the album closes to the sound of Shawn Lane's voice accompanied by a single guitar on the touching farewell to a departed loved one, "Goodbye for a While." It's just that the spacey intro and Revelations-inspired lyrics don't convey near the power they should, especially when compared to Tim Stafford's instant classic, "Mountain of the Lord."

In the end, though, my only real complaint with Still Climbing Mountains is how clearly it shows that Blue Highway has too much talent for any one band. The album is a generous forty minutes long, but we still don't get to hear near enough of Wayne Taylor's lead vocals, Rob Ickes' Dobro solos ... well, you get the idea. I like Blue Highway way too much to really wish for them to break up into the Tim Stafford Band, the Shawn Lane Band, etc., but are some solo projects too much to ask for?

[ by Chris Simmons ]
Rambles: 2 March 2002

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