The members of Blue Highway have driven the long, long road between traditional and progressive bluegrass for 20 years now, releasing 11 studio albums and garnering two Grammy nominations.
Shawn Lane, who plays fiddle and mandolin in the band, chalks their longevity up to one very simple factor — their like-mindedness.
“We have a lot of the same influences and a lot of the same goals,” he says. “We all seem to want to play the same amount of dates.”
There’s more to it than that, of course. The five musicians are all aces on their instruments and strong songwriters. That dynamic is on display on their brand new album, The Game.
“We never discuss how many traditional songs to put on a record or how many songs that lean out over the edge of tradition to put on a record,” Lane says. “We all just try to write as much as we can, and it seems to work out.”
CMT Edge: Can you talk about the collaborative relationship within the band? How has that changed over the years?
Lane: We don’t write as much together as bandmates as much these days. We do a lot of co-writing with outside people. We pick out songs we think might fit the band and pitch them to each other. Then we put them all in a pile and narrow them down to 15 or so. …
That’s one thing that makes the band work. When you’re songwriting, you need somewhere for a song to be cut. You need an outlet. If you write a bunch of songs and they never get cut, you’re probably going to give it up one day. This band gives each person a place to have his material come to life. That’s pretty gratifying.
How much do you work to make sure everyone is represented on the final track list?
We try to pick three or four of the best songs from each person. Of course, a couple of the guys only write instrumentals, and we stick one or two of those on there to mix it up a bit. From there, it just all seems to work out. We don’t think too much about whether a song fits with another song. We might do some work on the sequencing of the song, speed and feed-wise, so you don’t end up with three slow songs in a row. But as far as the ones we cut, we don’t govern that too much. We just pick what everybody likes the best.
And yet, The Game sounds pretty cohesive, both musically and thematically, especially toward the end when you get two working-man songs back to back: “My Last Day in the Mine” and “Just to Have a Job.”
I noticed that, too. It’s kind of a weird thing that happened. We didn’t plan it at all. The Lord just blessed us with good writers. I don’t know what causes something like that to happen, but I know a lot of people in this country are going to relate to those two songs.
Like many of your songs, they’re rooted in character and personal experience even if none of you are miners or truck drivers.
I have felt like a truck driver many times when we’ve been out on the road. We’ll get finished up at 11:30 or midnight, and then we have to be 400 miles away the next day. And we’ve got four of those in a row. It’s rough. The words to “Just to Have a Job” … I’ve had them in my head many, many times when I’m sitting in my car, and I’ve just straightened my back up and done what I needed to do.
Of course, we don’t do it nearly as much as a truck driver does. They do it all the time. For us, it’s a seasonal thing — mostly summer and fall and maybe a little bit in the spring. Truck drivers do it year round. And we’re delivering a stage show while they’re delivering freight. But it’s easy to connect with that frame of mind.
Rootlessness seems to be a prominent theme on The Game. All the songs are about traveling and longing for the security of home.
That’s everyone’s biggest fear, I guess — not having that security. A lot of people feel that, even if it’s different circumstances and situations. But we all would love to go back to a place we have in our head, a memory of home or just a good time. You hang on to those good thoughts while you have to go through the daily grind. That’s part of the insecurity of being out on the road and wanting to get back home. You’re just trying to get back to better times.
Can you tell me about “All the Things You Do,” which is about the songwriter Harley Allen, right?
Larry Price passed away several years ago. He was a big influence on me as a songwriter, and I had this thought of writing a song. I came up with the first lines at that point: “I’ve still got the songs you wrote/I still play them on the road.” I had that stuck back in a notebook. I had a melody, too, but I didn’t have any more lines.
Then Harley died, and somehow or another, I stumbled back on those lines I had written about Larry. I wrote a little more on it, and then I got together with a buddy of mine, Shannon Slaughter. We finished the song with Harley in mind. I didn’t know him that well, but it hurt me bad when I heard that he died. I didn’t even know he was sick.
What drew you to his work? Why was he such a big influence on you?
I saw him at a festival in Denton, N.C., a couple of times, but he was mainly doing bluegrass covers. He didn’t really grab me until a buddy of mine, Barry Bales, a bass player for Alison Krauss, gave me this demo tape of Harley doing these five tunes with just him and a guitar.
It was country-sounding stuff, and it just blew me away. I almost ran off the road when I heard this stuff. I wore that tape out. I need to get it again on CD because I don’t have it anymore. He could just grab you by the shoulders and shake you with a song from the radio. It was unreal. I never had anybody hit me like that. He got me fired up as a writer.