“Original Traditional” by Blue Highway

Blue Highway
Original Traditional
Rounder Records
5 stars (out of 5)

By Aaron Keith Harris

Original Traditional is Blue Highway’s 11th album in 22 years—and the first without Rob Ickes, the group’s Dobro player and, if you go by awards won and sessions played, their most acclaimed member. But banjo stalwart Jason Burleson and singer-songwriters Shawn Lane (mandolin and fiddle), Tim Stafford (guitar), and Wayne Taylor (bass)—with youngster Gaven Largent ably shouldering the task of replacing a legend—have made yet another classic album, and one that delivers on what its title promises.

We’re used to strong material from Lane, Stafford, and Taylor, who usually write separately, and often with co-writers. This batch is exceptionally good. Stafford’s “If Lonesome Don’t Kill Me” and “Last Time I’ll Ever Leave this Town” are two-and-a-half-minute masterpieces that could have come from the pen of Jimmy Martin or Carter Stanley; likewise Lane’s work song “A Long Row to Hoe” and love-lorn “What You Wanted” are new pieces that you’d swear you’ve heard before. Burleson also nails the retro/modern vibe with his instrumental, “Alexander’s Run.”

Of course, it’s Taylor who supplies the most heartfelt song, this time it’s “Water From the Stone,” a tale told about the miracle of recovery:

But momma got water from the stone
She said it’s gotta stop drink one more drop and I’m gone
She put tears in the eyes of the rock that we leaned on
Momma got water from the stone

The three songwriters also compete to see who can come up with the best killing’ song: with Stafford offering “A tale of deception, murder, and guilt” (“Wilkes County Clay”), Lane opting for tragedy (“Don’t Weep for Me”), and Taylor upping the ante on “A Boy Named Sue” with “The Story of My Life.”

The album’s final pair of tracks pull things father afield, with the fingerpicked country blues of Stafford’s “She Ain’t Worth It” contrasting into Lane’s sublime “Top of the Ridge” a simple, gorgeous song with a great arrangement made perfect by Newsom’s cinematic picking.

All that, plus “Hallelujah,” another of the group’s signature gospel a cappella quartets, shows that Blue Highway’s creative whole still adds up to more than the sum of its remarkable parts.