Riding the Blue Highway

By Derek Halsey (reporter@mountaintimes.com)

Article Published: Feb. 14 | Modified: Feb. 14
Riding the Blue Highway

Blue Highway features Tim Stafford, Rob Ickes, Wayne Taylor, Shawn Lane and Avery County’s
own Jason Burleson.

Photo by Kimberly Miller

Blue Highway is one of the most awarded bands in all of bluegrass music.

They have won various International Bluegrass Music Association (IBMA) awards, including Album of the Year, Vocal Group of the Year, Song of the Year, Gospel Song of the Year and more.

Blue Highway is celebrating its 20th anniversary as a group by releasing its new Rounder Records album, “The Game.”

In the world of bluegrass music, wintertime often becomes what is referred to as Silly Season. That is when many groups change their lineups, with musicians being hired and fired, while others simply leave to form their own new band. But the members of Blue Highway have found a way to stay intact as a unit for all of their two decades in the business.

The lineup of Blue Highway features Tim Stafford, Rob Ickes, Wayne Taylor, Shawn Lane and Avery County’s own Jason Burleson. Burleson was not only born and raised here in the High Country, he still resides near Newland. He grew up with an extended family that played mountain music.

“My parents and grandparents were all from Roaring Creek, and then they moved up towards Minneapolis (Avery County),” Burleson said. “Three out of my four grandparents played the banjo. They didn’t really play clawhammer style, but played more of a two-finger old-timey style. I had an uncle named Joe Burleson, who tried to play like Earl Scruggs (three-finger style) but with only two fingers, so he kind of developed his own style. Then, I have a cousin named Jeter Griffith that got me started on the banjo when I was 11 years old.”

After all these years, there has not been one personnel change throughout the history of Blue Highway. Communication and a desire to spread the musical wealth is what has made the group a happy family in a rough business.

“I think we’ve just been really lucky, for one thing,” Burleson said. “Everybody has an equal say in the band. It’s not like we are all working for another person. It’s a democracy. Everybody gets a say in what happens, as far as what shows we do and all of that kind of stuff. If you work for somebody, eventually you are going to get tired of it. But it’s always been a democracy for us, and we’ve been lucky enough to make a living out of it for 20 years. We all get along, and we’re all just like brothers.”

The music has been passed on to a new generation of Burlesons in recent years, with the emergence of Jason’s son, Jacob. This past September, Jacob was a member of the Bluegrass Youth All-Stars band, comprised of pre-teen and teenage musicians who performed at the IBMA Awards Show in Raleigh.

When Burleson learned the new songs that would appear on “The Game,” his son helped him work on the tunes before the recording session. One of the cuts is a new Burleson-penned instrumental, called “Dogtown.”

“When Jacob was just 4 or 5 years old, he had this little toy keyboard in his room, and I would hear him in there playing Stevie Wonder or Michael Jackson songs, and I mean using both hands, the chords and everything, and not just playing the melody notes with one finger,” Burleson said. “He has an incredible ear for it. I never told him that he needed to practice. I never showed him anything, unless he asked me to show him something, which he may have done two or three times in his whole life.

“When Blue Highway gets together to do a record, everybody passes a guitar around and throws out songs they think might work,” Burleson said. “Then, on a weekend during some gigs, we’d run over some songs and record those rehearsals, and then everybody would go home and work on them for a week before we went into the studio. Jacob would help me learn the melodies, and he’d say, ‘Well, Dad, I think the melody goes in this part right here.’ And, of course, he was right every time. I’d get him up and ready for school, and we’d sit around and play those tunes before school each morning, so it was fun.”

On the Highway
To learn more about Burleson’s other family — Blue Highway — and sample some tunes, visit http://www.bluehighwayband.com.

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