Sounds of Home
3.5 stars (out of 5)
If you’re a regular reader of the Lonesome Road Review, you’ll notice that this is my first review in quite a while. I never plan to take these hiatuses from music writing, but life and work sometimes intervene.
Writing about music is the hardest kind of writing for me, especially in a short review format. It’s hard to avoid the same format, the same adjectives and the same verbs. But I love doing it, and I’m back on the job.
Blue Highway’s Sounds of Home was the disc I was listening to when I got sidetracked, so even though it been out for months, I’m going to review it. Also, you just can’t ignore anything these guys put out.
Wayne Taylor (bass, vocals), Shawn Lane (mandolin, guitar, fiddle, vocals), Tim Stafford (guitar, vocals), Jason Burleson (banjo, guitar, mandolin) and Rob Ickes (Dobro, lap steel guitar) have been one of my top five bluegrass bands since I first heard their 1999 self-titled album (which was actually their fourth effort and the only one that featured Tom Adams, rather than Burleson, on banjo).
Burleson is key on this album, their ninth of all-new material. As the band continues to get better and better as writers—at least one band member has a hand in writing eleven of the twelve songs here; an old-time drone/groove on the traditional “Nobody’s Fault But Mine,” is the other track, my favorite of the bunch—Burleson’s firm right hand on the five keeps things from getting to singer-songwritery, and on his own instrumental composition he and the band prove they are indeed still masters of the hard-edged sound of real bluegrass.
Recalling, consciously, one presumes, 1999’s album-opening “Born With a Hammer in My Hand,” this set kicks off with Lane’s yearning tenor promising “I Ain’t Gonna Lay My Hammer Down” while the band is in full flight, with Ickes and his sinewy Dobro nailing the first break and galloping neck-and-neck with Burleson.
Lane also sings lead on the finely nostalgic “Sounds of Home,” another work song in “Restless Working Man,” and the defiant “Storm,” a more primal version of “I’m No Stranger to the Rain.”
Taylor’s deeper, more sonorous lead marks the simple nature poetry of “Bluebird Days” and “Only Seventeen,” which, sadly, is about coal mining and not young women. Taylor also writes and sings “My Heart Was Made to Love You,” a straight-up country song that would make Ernest Tubb proud, especially with Ickes on twangy lap steel. I hesitate to mention “Heather and Billy,” another of Taylor’s leads. It’s the type of song many love as a heartfelt tearjerker, but others, including yours truly, recoil from as emotional manipulation of the crudest kind.
I’ve always wanted more of Stafford’s earnest lead vocals on Blue Highway albums, and this one is no different. He sings bouncy, taunting “If You’ve Got Something to Say” and the secular gospel meditation “Drinking from a Deeper Well,” a song a little too well-written to get picked up by a country star.
Looking over my past reviews and ratings, I think I’ve been a little too generous. That said, this one would score higher if it were from an average band, but these guys can be more exciting and fresh than this.