Blue Highway's Red-Hot Bluegrass Blue Highway's CD Marbletown is topping the bluegrass charts and has been nominated for a Grammy. Founder Tim Stafford and dobro player Rob Ickes tell Debbie Elliott what's behind the group's music.
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Blue Highway's Red-Hot Bluegrass

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Blue Highway's Red-Hot Bluegrass

Blue Highway's Red-Hot Bluegrass

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(Soundbite of bluegrass music)


There's bluegrass, and then there's bluegrass. Take a listen to this.

(Soundbite from Blue Highway's "Three-Fingered Jack")

ELLIOTT: That's Blue Highway's "Three-Fingered Jack" from the group's latest CD, "Marbletown." It's topping the bluegrass charts and was just nominated for a Grammy.

(Soundbite from Blue Highway's "Three-Fingered Jack")

ELLIOTT: Two members of Blue Highway are with us today from member station WPLN in Nashville: guitarist, Tim Stafford, founded the band; and Rob Ickes is the band's dobro player.

Welcome, gentlemen, and Merry Christmas.

Mr. ROB ICKES (Blue Highway): Thank you. Merry Christmas to you.

Mr. TIM STAFFORD (Blue Highway): Yeah, it's a wonderful day.

ELLIOTT: So how do you play so fast and so tight?

Mr. STAFFORD: Years and years of messing up.

Mr. ICKES: Yeah.

ELLIOTT: Can you guys start us off with a little Christmas tune today?

Mr. STAFFORD: You bet. Be happy to. How about a little Mel Torme on the dobro?

ELLIOTT: Love it.

Mr. ICKES: That's what we had in mind.

(Soundbite of Christmas song from Blue Highway)

ELLIOTT: That's Tim Stafford and Rob Ickes of Blue Highway playing the Christmas song for us today. Thank you.

Mr. ICKES: You betcha.

ELLIOTT: So when I talk to the hard-core bluegrass fans around here. And we have a few, including our engineer today. They are just very excited about you guys. They say you're incredible musicians, that you can sing and that you even write a lot of your own songs. They make it sound like that's really unusual for a bluegrass band.

Mr. ICKES: Well, it is and I'm really proud of the band's writing. And this is Rob speaking, and I write instrumental stuff. But we've got some great lyrical writers in the band. To me, it lends us a little more of a contemporary sound. We have the traditional sound. And when you hear these guys sing and you hear the harmony, it's definitely bluegrass, but a lot of our songs might deal with more contemporary things then cabins and such like that.

ELLIOTT: Are you guys self-consciously trying to break with tradition when you're writing your own music?

Mr. STAFFORD: I don't think so. I think that we actually have a really strong appreciation for tradition. And you have to in bluegrass music. I mean, you can't--it's such a powerfully tradition-oriented music that you have to be conscious of that. And we all love Flatt and Scruggs and Bill Monroe and the Stanley Brothers, especially, and what they represent in the music. And it definitely comes out in what we do. But I think that, you know, we can't pretend that we didn't grow up listening to The Beatles and all these groups, you know. Because I certainly did and they had a big impact, in particular, on my writing and what I do just the same way you wouldn't expect Bill Monroe to, you know, say that he wasn't influenced by string-band music, fiddle music or the blues, you know.

Mr. ICKES: Yeah, or jazz.

Mr. STAFFORD: Or jazz.

ELLIOTT: Would you mind taking us through a song from your new CD and sort of talk about the process of writing and then recording it?

Mr. STAFFORD: Sure. "Wild Bill" is one that I started writing in California. I don't know, I guess it was about '97 when we were out there for the Strawberry Music Festival. And I remember us sitting around on a bed and I came up with this tune in between shows, and I just read a book on Wild Bill Hickock and I wanted to write a song about him. So I got the first phrase and I think I got the chorus that weekend, too. And then I didn't finish--it took like five or six years to finish it.

Mr. ICKES: Yeah, I didn't realize you'd started it that long ago.

Mr. STAFFORD: Yeah, yeah, and so it took me forever. And I had a--it was an epic poem. It was "Gilgamesh." I mean, it had like 37 verses. So I had to narrow it down to 10 or so, and...

ELLIOTT: Now we should alert our listeners to--not only can you write music. You also have--What?--have a Ph.D. in history?

Mr. STAFFORD: Well, I worked on a Ph.D. in history. I finished the course work, but I never finished the dissertation. So...

Mr. ICKES: Like all good musicians, he didn't finish college.

ELLIOTT: So finish telling me the story of "Wild Bill."

Mr. STAFFORD: It's pretty much the accurate story of his life, except for one thing. I had to make his dad a Baptist preacher, because that phrase, `better than deacon.' I'll admit that up front now, OK?

ELLIOTT: Can we hear a little bit?

Mr. STAFFORD: I don't know if I can remember it. Let's see.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. STAFFORD: I can do a little bit of it. Let's see.

(Soundbite from "Wild Bill")

Mr. STAFFORD: (Singing) The youngest son of a Baptist preacher man. His mamma said don't take up the gun or you're always on the run. Don't go James, she cried. And he told her that he wouldn't, but he lied. I'm lookin' for my fortune and it ain't in Illinois. They say that farther West is open wide. So he started off across the endless plains and he soon became a jack of every trade. Some men are born, not made.

ELLIOTT: Now both of you have done some solo work in addition to the band. Rob, you even did a whole album of jazz. Was that much of a stretch from bluegrass?

Mr. ICKES: Yes and no. I mean, I wanted to put the dobro in a jazz band, so, you know, I had--I got drums, a saxophone, piano and bass and dobro, a five-piece band. And I just think the dobro's one of those instruments that works in a lot of different atmospheres. You know, a lot of different surroundings. There's just something real vocal about the slide instrument that the tone of it can work in a lot of different musics. But to me, I mean, I've always said I love Ray Charles and I love Ralph Stanley. To me, it's the same thing, you know. They're--they make you feel a certain way or they sing the lyric a certain way. I mean, I--Merle Haggard is just one of my favorites also. And Bill Monroe once said, `If you can play bluegrass, well, you can play anything.' And I really think there's a lot of truth to that. It's--there's a lot of soloing going on, kind of similar to a jazz band where you're trading solos. And then, you know, vocally, the harmonies are just incredible. I mean, when you hear some good bluegrass singing, it'll just, you know--it'll set your--set you on fire. I mean, there's nothing like it.

ELLIOTT: Can you give us just a little song on the dobro?

Mr. ICKES: Yeah, you bet. Let's see.

(Soundbite of dobro music)


Mr. ICKES: Thank you.

ELLIOTT: Now I've read somewhere that one of the things that gives you great pleasure is the process of backing up vocals. What is the challenge for a dobro player when you are working with singers?

Mr. ICKES: The challenge is--I always just try to support the song as best I can.

Mr. ICKES: When I hear a singer say a word, it paints a picture in my head and I try to support what the singer just sang about.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. ICKES: And so, I think that's sort of one of my main goals, is figuring out all my choices of notes. It's like, you know, a pallet, you know, of colors to choose from. And I think, you know, the more I--the longer I've been playing, the more notes I have and more colors I have to choose from.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Man: (Singing) She said what about our babies? Don't you remember the day the doctor game 'em to you and your tears of joy fell on their face? You should have thought of their feelings because...

Unidentified Man and Chorus:'s not just you and me alone.

Unidentified Man: And what am I going to say to our angels when they wake and ask why dad's not coming home?

Unidentified Man and Chorus: Bitter tears fell on Missouri like rain apouring down...

ELLIOTT: That song really is sad.

Mr. STAFFORD: Yeah, we played it in Knoxville a couple of weeks ago at the Tennessee Theatre, and Shawn was introducing that song. And I saw this lady in the front row kind of sit up straight and look at her daughter, like `Oh, no, here it comes.'

ELLIOTT: Oh, no.

Mr. STAFFORD: And she was balling, you know, by the first verse. Yeah, it's a powerful song. Shawn's a great writer.

ELLIOTT: Not only do you back up vocals in a haunting way. At times I've heard listening to some of your CDs in preparation for this interview, where the dobro just becomes a voice in a song. And there's one in particular that I'm going to ask you to take us out on that really touched me. And it's from your gospel album, your first gospel album, "Wondrous Love."

Mr. ICKES: Yeah.

ELLIOTT: Would you mind taking us out on "The Old Rugged Cross"?

Mr. ICKES: Not at all. Be happy to.

ELLIOTT: Well, before you play it I guess I should say we have been talking with Rob Ickes and Tim Stafford. Blue Highway's the name of the band. Their most recent CD is "Marbletown." They've been speaking to us from WPLN in Nashville.

Thank you so much guys.

Mr. ICKES: Thanks a lot, Debbie.

Mr. STAFFORD: Thanks, Debbie.

(Soundbite from Blue Highway's "The Old Rugged Cross")

ELLIOTT: To hear more from Blue Highway, go to our Web site, Happy holidays from ALL THINGS CONSIDERED and NPR News. I'm Debbie Elliott.

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