Blue Highway aren't the typical bluegrass band. With the original lineup still intact since 1994 - a remarkable achievement in itself - they operate as something of a collective, a five-man 'family' that chooses to remain close to home and hearth. (They don't tour much - as banjo player Jason Burleson says, "We decided early on that we'd rather own our own homes than own a bus together").
Creative input from five individually brilliant musicians could be an unfocussed nightmare. But bluegrass is a rather traditional genre, and if all five respect the tradition while remaining adventurous enough to experiment with the formula, the results can be revelatory.
The Game is an almost-all-original collection that doesn't need multiple guest appearances - apart from a vocal by Trey Hensley, a little-known 'scratch' vocalist (originally intended for demo purposes only) and some harmony from Beth Snapp, only the band members are present.
Things kick off with the title track, a gambler's tale of life on the lam with lots of good old-fashioned murder to fuel the drama. Indeed, strong songwriting is the band's hallmark; tunes like the moody, reflective "A Change Of Faith In Tennessee," the pithy "Talk Is Cheap," and the twin working-man laments of "Last Day In The Mine" and "Just To Have A Job" are all masterful compositions with rich lyrical imagery and withering emotional honesty. And as with pretty much all bluegrass, there's lots of heartache ("Remind Me Of You" and "All The Things You Do," both full of loss and regret).
Instrumentals include "Dogtown" and "Funny Farm," both featuring exquisite instrumental articulation, while the lone cover, the mournful "Hicks's Farewell" (a traditional tune performed a capella but for a bit of fiddle) highlights the band's gorgeous harmonies and gospel roots.
In addition to Burleson, who also contributes guitar and mandolin, the band includes guitarist Tim Stafford (a former member of Union Station, Alison' Krauss' backing band), Shawn Lane (mandolin, guitar, and fiddle), bassist Wayne Taylor, and dobro legend Rob Ickes. Taylor and Stafford share the vocals throughout.
There's nothing whatsoever here to offend purists (Stafford actually teaches a college course on bluegrass history), but what's really remarkable about The Game is how modern it sounds, without the need to stretch or redefine boundaries. Superb performances and heartfelt vocals, combined with strong, new songs that add something to the genre rather than simply recycle the past, prove there's a great deal more to bluegrass than tradition alone - in the hands of the masters, it's still very much a living, breathing music.
This is genuinely warm, wise, and wonderful stuff ...!