"Gospel music, like fiddle tunes and blues, has always been at the heart of bluegrass, but that strain in its purest form is usually associated with traditional acts. Nevertheless Blue Highway, the most lauded of contemporary bluegrass bands, has put together a near-perfect gospel collection with their newest release, Wondrous Love. Of course this should be no surprise. This band has always kept one foot in the lonesome mountain sound of pre-bluegrass, with their penchant for flat thirds and sevenths. Too, they feature among their vocal combinations the very best "old-time brother duet" now working, Wayne Taylor and Shawn Lane, a pair that is sure to delight listeners of the Blue Sky Boys, the Delmore Brothers, and the Monroe Brothers.But as with the band's secular albums, their ability to discover, arrange, and write material that is a cut above what even their finest peers are doing is what sets this gospel masterpiece apart. The title cut begins with a solo mandolin stating the melody against dulcimer-like drones; then Wayne Taylor enters with a solo vocal. Harmonies are added in imitation of the opening mandolin riff, and by the climax the sound has evolved into a shape-note fuguing piece. Suddenly we're sitting in the parking lot of some little cinderblock church house in East Kentucky, listening to the ancient saints through the window.Maybe one of the most interesting instances of musical evolution here is what the fellows do with A.P. Carter's "Live On Down the Line." With characteristic modal notes, they make it sound like something from the lost tapes of Ralph Stanley, and they deliver it with an intensity that would make Dock Boggs proud. In fact, Blue Highway is known for writing new songs that sound ancient, and for putting out stunning new acappella numbers. Tim Stafford has done the honors here with the mystical "Chasing After Wind." But they don't stay too long in the 20s. The back-beat shuffle of Shawn Lane's moving "I'm Asking You," complemented by Sonja Issac's harmony, could leave the casual listener wondering which Allison Krauss and Union Station album this appeared on, and it should earn the band some fans from the Contemporary Christian Music converts.With understated facility, these gentlemen move from complexly arranged numbers to sparsely charted pieces such as Shawn Lane's "Ahead of the Storm" and "It Won't Be Long (co-written with Gerald Ellenburg)-two songs sure to show up soon at festival campfires, and I might wager that within a few years they'll be referred to as ancient tunes somebody's neighbor learned from a cousin's uncle-they're that good, that squarely in the tradition. And of course no Blue Highway album would be complete without a solid story song, and here they fill that slot doubly with Ellenburg's "Traveling Preacher" and Wayne Taylor's "Seven Sundays In A Row" (with credits shared by Kim Williams and Larry Shell). I won't tell you how the stories come out, though. Listen for yourself.Not only do they write great original tunes, and draw upon mountain music roots, but they do more than tip their hats to the originators of bluegrass proper. Their version of "Wicked Path of Sin" is a respectful clone of Monroe's masterpiece, with Shawn Lane slipping up to do the tenor in a way that would've made the old man proud. And their renditions of the often covered "This World Is Not My Home" and "Old Brush Arbors" are presented with respect and musicality-they manage to make the chestnuts sound new without making them sound different for the sake of difference.I hope that what you've read already will make you listen to, maybe even buy, Wondrous Love. If you do, you'll agree that it was worth the money. And then-then-you can listen to their closer, Rob Ickes's new take on "The Old Rugged Cross," and accept it as a wonderful surprise you received for free. So what's the best thing about the album? Maybe this: with aesthetic depth and spiritual respect, Blue Highway has put together a project with a straight-ahead Christian message that never seems to preach: even the most direct of gospel "warning" songs, Tim Stafford's "The Ground Is Level at the Foot of the Cross," demonstrates a spirituality that speaks clearly to human equality while avoiding the hint of sectarian religion. Given a little luck and airplay, this collection should win gospel fans to bluegrass, bluegrass fans to gospel, and lots of fans to Blue Highway. (Bill Jolliff, for Nwbluegrass)"
The best gospel recording of the year!
J. Ross | 08/05/2003
(5 out of 5 stars)
"Listen to the title cut "Wondrous Love" and if you don't get a chill check your pulse! This CD is filled with innovative, original material. There are no "throw away" songs on the entire CD. Blue Highway is known for their superior instrumentation and great vocalizations and this recording is no exception! If you are new to bluegrass pick up any of their recordings and you won't be disappointed. Wondrous Love gets my vote as the best recording this year!"
Blue Highway delivers some Heavenly Bluegrass Gospel
Mark J. Fowler | Okinawa, Japan | 08/16/2004
(5 out of 5 stars)
"Stafford, Ickes, Lane, Taylor and Burleson turn their considerable talents to this all-gospel collection. Any band would consider themselves lucky to have a lead vocalist as gifted as Shawn Lane, Wayne Taylor or Tim Stafford, and by having all three Blue Highway has the luxury of having great lead vocals, fantastic harmonies, plus variety. Instrumentally there are less than a handful of bands with the virtuosity of these guys.
Protestantism is the unofficial religion of Bluegrass and most bands since the original Bill Monroe and His Bluegrass Boys have incorporated Gospel into their repertoire. (Many like the Lewis Family or Isaacs have worked professionally for years playing Gospel Bluegrass exclusively.)
This disc includes a good deal of variety within the genre. "Wondrous Love" opens the set with a soulful acapella arrangement that builds and builds (with addition of guest vocalist Alan O'Bryant from the Nashville Bluegrass Band) to a Steeple-Shaking climax. "Wicked Path of Sin" follows Monroe's original arrangement closely and Shawn Lane's soaring tenor is even easier on the ear than Monroe's. "Seven Sundays in a Row" is a ballad from the sub-genre of the "former wild-child who has become saved and now is keeping the faith" along the lines of "The Baptism of Jesse Taylor", and Wayne's soulful lead carries the tune well. Wayne does a fine rendition of the traditional "Old Brush Arbors" also. Tim Stafford contributes the bluesy "Ground Is Level at the Foot of the Cross" and the disc ends showcasing dobro-wiz Rob Ickes on "The Old Rugged Cross" in a non-traditional arrangement and chord progression that both honors and updates this old favorite."
A heavenly treat with brand-name harmonies and virtuosity
J. Ross | Roseburg, OR USA | 06/25/2003
(5 out of 5 stars)
"It was only two years after Tennessee-based contemporary bluegrass supergroup, Blue Highway, formed that they were taking home IBMA awards for "Emerging Artist of 1996" and "Album of the Year" (for "It's a Long, Long Road"). A year later, the band won "Gospel Recorded Performance of the Year" for the song "God Moves in a Windstorm." Why they've waited six years longer to release their first gospel album is a mystery. This project is long overdue, and it is certainly a heavenly treat with their brand-name harmonies and instrumental virtuosity. The band features five consummate players and vocalists: Tim Stafford (guitar), Shawn Lane (mandolin, fiddle), Wayne Taylor (bass), Rob Ickes (resophonic guitar), and Jason Burleson (banjo, guitar). Ickes is a five-time winner of the IBMA Dobro Player of the Year award.The title cut opens the project with a sparse mandolin prelude, followed by a cappella harmonies that build to a full studio-enhanced chorus of multiple Blue Highwaymen, including guest Alan O'Bryant. "Traveling Preacher" is a bouncy tale of a man of faith, while Shawn Lane's "I'm Asking You" is an introspective ballad with an uplifting and inspirational message. Another song without instruments, Tim Stafford's "Chasing After the Wind" exhorts listeners to find the Hand of God. Wayne Taylor's songwriting collaboration on "Seven Sundays in a Row" (with Kim Williams and Larry Shell) reinforces the fact that the band's bass player is also a gifted bluegrass songcrafter, as are Lane and Stafford who also penned songs on this album.Besides their original material, Blue Highway does a very commendable job with more standard material like Wicked Path of Sin, This World is not My Home, and Old Brush Arbor. "The Ground is Level at the Foot of the Cross" has an important message - no matter how different people are, we all stand in the same relationship before God. Rob Ickes closes the album with a wondrously moving instrumental rendition of The Old Rugged Cross. Guest artist Sonya Isaacs adds harmony on two cuts.Blue Highway has built a reputation for brilliant instrumental prowess, soaring harmonies, driving rhythms, well-crafted original material, and creative arrangements. Wondrous Love is a topnotch gospel album from a band that continues to be foremost in their profession and presentation. Blue Highway's got the power, and this is an album that will help you find true inwardness from the gospel messages presented in their spiritual songs. (Joe Ross, staff writer, Bluegrass Now)"
Emily C. Culler | Boston, MA USA | 01/11/2007
(5 out of 5 stars)
"Bluegrass and gospel fans alike will love this album. The musicianship, as always, is second to none."