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Blue Highway straddles the line between traditional bluegrass and musical innovation.

On the Fence


Dobro player Rob Ickes says he and his bandmates in the award-winning bluegrass group Blue Highway walk a narrow musical high wire when it comes to their sound. On one hand, they love tradition. But, on the other, the players want to add their own creative energies to bring new fans to the shows.

"Some bands are historical in their approach," the 32-year-old Ickes observes. "I appreciate Bill Monroe, he was creating it…[But] I really like the new material we do."

Blue Highway's approach has apparently found favor among many in the five years the quintet has been recording and playing festivals across the country and in Europe. On Saturday, Feb. 12, Blue Highway plays the Cultural Arts Center at Glen Allen with Local Exchange and Coleman & Fuller.

Almost from the first day the members of Blue Highway got together in 1995, they've found acceptance. A demo landed them a recording contract within months, and the group's first album — cut only weeks later — went to the top of the bluegrass charts. The group and its individual members won awards that put them quickly among the bluegrass elite. The band was the International Bluegrass Music Association's Best Emerging Band of 1996, and the group's first record was Album of the Year the same year. Later, Ickes won top dobro awards four years running and band member Tom Adams twice grabbed premier banjo player honors. Their 1999 record, "Blue Highway," produced by Ricky Skaggs, went to No. 1 in the bluegrass field.

Several band members had previously experienced success as players in the Skaggs, Alison Krauss, Jimmy Martin and Lynn Morris bands as well as in the Johnson Mountain Boys. But as Blue Highway, the mix of old and new took a new path toward success. Ickes says the group prides itself on the amount of original material it plays, material primarily written by guitarist Tim Stafford, bassist Wayne Taylor and mandolinist Shawn Lane. Blue Highway still keeps traditional tunes on the set list, and there's the occasional unexpected musical turn such as a new arrangement of Sting's "I Hung My Head." But it's on writing — as well as musical — virtuosity that the band hangs its future. Part of this future, Ickes notes, could also rest on the growing number of young folks who turn out for shows in South Carolina, East Tennessee and Colorado among other locales. He's not sure whether this is a new development put in motion by the popularity of jam-happy, "hippiegrass" groups, or just the evolving nature and virtues of pure American music. Whatever the reason, Ickes says the band members want to take their warm vocals and tight instrumentation as far as they can. If that means their road sometimes veers from familiar bluegrass festivals and shows to smaller clubs not normally associated with bluegrass, then that's fine. Ickes adds that some fans praise the band for sticking to its roots, while others like the new songs. He laughs knowing this means Blue Highway's music taps into many a soul regardless of pointless notions surrounding musical classifications.

"We fall in there somewhere," he concludes. "We kind of walk that

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