from the "Original Traditional" 2016. Rounder Records
AllMusic Review by Mark Deming [-]
Blue Highway have been one of the most well-respected bands in bluegrass since they made their debut in 1996, and with the group's consistent excellence on-stage and in the studio, there hasn't been much in the way of change in their story. 2016's Original Traditional actually marks a turning point in Blue Highway's career as they celebrate their 20th Anniversary -- it's their first album since Dobro master and founding member Rob Ickes left the group, and introduces Gaven Largent, a gifted 19-year-old picker making his debut with the band. (All the more remarkably, this is only the second personnel change in the group's history, and Largent is the only current member of Blue Highway who didn't appear on their debut album.) It's a compliment to Largent to say that many fans might not notice the difference; the young man's Dobro solos on numbers like "If Lonesome Don't Kill Me," "Last Time I'll Ever Leave This Town," and "She Ain't Worth It" are technically impressive and melodically sound, and fit these songs like a glove. Elsewhere, Original Traditional finds Blue Highway doing what's made them bluegrass legends; the group's instrumental work is uniformly excellent, with tight ensemble picking and great soloing from Jason Burleson on banjo, Shawn Lane on fiddle and mandolin, and Tim Stafford on guitar. The band's outstanding harmonies are still in excellent shape (their a cappella version of the gospel standard "Hallelujah" is one of this album's highlights), and the lead vocals from Stafford, Lane, and bassist Wayne Taylor are strong and sincere. And as the title suggests, Original Traditional testifies to Blue Highway's gift for bringing fresh ideas to music that still honors the roots of bluegrass, with 11 original songs that deal with subjects as old as love gone wrong, and as urgent as a young man running from a life of abuse and desperation. Not many groups in any genre can sound as fresh and vital after two decades together as Blue Highway do on Original Traditional, and if another 20 years might seem overly optimistic, there's no audible reason why this group shouldn't have at least another good decade of heartfelt music in them.
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