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Blue Highway

A Conversation with Tim Stafford (continued)

PM: Aside from being great songwriters and singers, the pickin' power of Blue Highway is just so undeniable. Even Ickes' outstanding dobro style doesn't shine any brighter than anybody else's playing, which is saying a lot. But don't you think that there's something extremely compelling about a flat-picked guitar? It just really fires audiences up, don't you think?

TS: Yeah. Once upon a time it was novelty to have a flat-pick lead. I remember that, too. I remember it was like, okay well, we're expecting a banjo break and a mandolin break, or whatever. But when the guitar would take a break it was more like a bass novelty or something.

PM: [laughs]

TS: We'll do a bass break. But now it's more expected.

PM: Because a lot of bluegrass bands don't have a good flat-pick guitar player.

TS: Yeah, there's more of them than there used to be, but it's still not as prevalent as the other instruments. I only like to do it if a song kind of calls for it. I don't say, "Yeah, I have to have a guitar right here." I don't like doing that.

PM: Because I remember in the '60s and '70s--years ago--it was just Doc Watson and a few other people that were picking the hell out of the flatop guitar, and it was just, as you say, it was truly unusual, and people went crazy.

TS: Yeah, yeah. I didn't see all that, because I didn't start playing guitar until about '77. But by the time that I was aware of it, Norman Blake and Clarence White [now sadly deceased, one of the seminal Country Rock geniuses, of The Byrds] had already been around for a long time.

PM: Right.

TS: Dan Crary, too, as well Doc.

PM: Absolutely. And just logistically--or I don't know how you would say it, circumstantially, the greatest of Clarence's flat-pick guitar really never saw the light of day except in bluegrass circles. Like Doc Watson got out there all over the place.

TS: Yeah, man.

PM: But so much of that great Clarence stuff is little known.

TS: Clarence is one of my all-time favorite players.

PM: Oh, yeah!

TS: The thing with Clarence was the timing. He would play with the timing and do these syncopated things that nobody had ever done. With Doc it was more like he was trying to make it sound like a fiddle.

PM: Right.

TS: Clarence had his own take on it that opened up a whole world there. And of course, Tony Rice had his own take on Clarence, too. So it keeps going in circles like that.

PM: Absolutely. Conversely speaking, I never think that banjo players get the juice from the crowd that they ought to. It's got something to do, it seems, with the right hand, how the notes are rolled through, rather than fired off a plectrum, or ripped off a bow. Does that make any sense to you?

TS: It could be. I don't know. Our banjo player [Jason Burleson] is not real flashy. He plays straight ahead stuff, but it's got great timing and great tone.

PM: Yeah, and his choice of notes is really great, nice and bluesy.

TS: Right. His favorite players are kind of my favorite players, too, people like J. D. Crow and Ron Block and Terry Baucom.

PM: Right. Now, I don't know that last name. Who does he play with?

TS: Well, Terry Baucom, he played with Boone Creek years ago, and then he also played with Doyle. He was the original banjo player in Doyle Lawson's band. Great driving banjo player.

PM: Yeah, because I like that Jay Burleson. I like the way he plays the banjo. That sounds really good to me.

TS: Yes. He's very versatile, too. He's started playing mandolin more. He's a great guitar player, too. So we try to switch--we switched it up more on this record than any we've ever done.

PM: Right. There was a lot of multi-instrumentaling going on.

TS: Yeah. And I think that's just something we haven't done as much as we need to.

PM: Do you do that on stage, too, sometimes?

TS: We are. It's becoming a challenge because [laughs] with that much switching off, we've got to figure out ways to take up the time, and make our set list so it's not such a real challenge and we don't have a lot of dead space.

PM: So it's not a switch every song, right. You got to get a string of tunes where everybody's on the same thing for a couple three tunes, and then you do a little switching. Yeah, because somebody has got to get up to the mic and say something.

TS: Right. You can't do too many slow songs in a row, not too many keys the same.

PM: People don't realize what goes into making a list.

TS: Yeah. It's true, man. It's like sequencing a record, to me that's very important. And not a lot of people know that I actually spend a lot of time doing that.

PM: Oh, yeah, absolutely. I mean, we always do audio clips of anybody we interview or review, and when I go to do audio clips, I never take my favorites off the record, it's just like, no, I take the first three tunes. And people say, "Why do you just take the first three?"  I say, "Do you have any idea how many hours went into the sequencing of that record? You don't have to rethink it, they thought about it."

TS: Absolutely. That's something a lot of people don't think about. But to me it's crucial, because that's the way you're going to hear it. That sequence is forever going to be associated with the way you hear it. Most people don't even think of it.

PM: And some people will make light of it, saying, "Well, that album is front-loaded." Hey, life is front-loaded.


PM: It's like when you meet a woman, you give her all your best stuff in the opening three days, don't you?

TS: You better. Yeah.

PM: A couple of your super tunes on Through the Window of a Train were co-written with Bobby Starnes, "A Week From Today," "My Roping Days Are Done," and "Blues on Blues." Maybe tell us something about him, and what your process with him is like. I don't know him.

TS: Bobby is a local guy here in East Tennessee. He and I went to high school together.

PM: Wow.

TS: He's a couple years younger than me. The thing about Bobby, he's a great musician too. He played rock 'n' roll and country music on the road for a number of years before he settled down. He owns his own pre-press company now. They illustrate most of the college textbooks that are printed.

PM: Wow.

TS: And as a matter of fact, he and I and his business partner are going into business together. I think we're going to be starting our own press. And our first book is going to be this Tony Rice book I've been working on.

PM: No kidding. Let's hear about that.

TS: I've been working on it for like seven years. I've got a co-writer now, Caroline Wright from Hawaii.

PM: How did you find her?

TS: Well, she had written an article on Tony for Listener magazine back when it was functioning, that was just great. So Pam, Tony's wife, was really impressed with it, and she suggested that we work on the book together. And we've been doing that for the last four years or so. I think we're finally going to get it out this year. It's been a long process. And this new press, it's going to be music biographies. That's what we're going to focus on.

PM: Wow. That's really exciting, Tim. That's really something. And it's a hell of a subject to start with. Tony must be a really fascinating character.

TS: Oh, man, we couldn't have picked anybody any more fascinating. And he's a mystery, too, he's an enigma.

PM: Right. I mean, yeah, you don't really hear much about him, and yet when you see him on stage and you hear him talk, wow, that's a deep character there.

TS: It is. And he's one of those guys, too, that legends spring up about. At one time he was just as close as you could get to bluegrass royalty. And I do think that his guitar style is probably the second most copied instrumental style in bluegrass music. The first would be Scruggs' banjo.

PM: Right.

TS: So him being that influential, and hearing Alison Krauss go on and on about him... He was a hero to a lot of people that I didn't even realize--like Roy Orbison was a huge Tony Rice fan.

PM: Wow!

TS: And Eddie Van Halen, evidently, is a real big Tony Rice fan.

PM: [laughs] That's very entertaining.

TS: Yeah. So something like that, that's the sort of thing we want to bring out in the book. Plus there's just a ton of great anecdotes.

PM: And there must be thousands, or at least hundreds of hours of interviews with the man.

TS: Oh, my gosh, man. That's been the biggest part of it. Because our format is pretty much a first-person narrative, an edited narrative. So Tony is going to be telling his story in his own words.

PM: No kidding. That's a wonderful stylistic approach.

TS: I like the way it worked out. And we've done 80-some other interviews. And we still have a few more to do. But the plan is for this book to come out at the IBMA in September. So we'll see. We're moving up against some really stiff deadlines at this point.

PM: Right. And so you'll have your own booth as a publishing company, and do the whole thing like that.

TS: Right, right. So Bobby will be involved in that. And Bobby, he's probably my best friend. I mean, we hang out. Even when I'm on the road I go over to his house and we'll write songs and just hang out. I think we're going to Hiltonhead on Sunday to his condo down there and just hang out for a few days. We'll probably end up writing that whole time.

PM: Well, when that book on Tony comes out, I'd love to review it in the ezine, and maybe do an interview with yourself again at that time or--what was your co-writer's name, Caroline Wright?

TS: Wright, yeah. I'll tell you what, just go ahead and drop me an email and I'll put you on the list for that, to make sure you get a copy, and then we'll do an interview. Yeah, Tony said he's going to do a lot of press releases, too, he's committed to it.

PM: Wow. I saw Tony play a Merlefest or two ago, and he had this young cat from the West Coast playing guitar with him. I didn't catch his name, but he was really good. Do you know the guy I mean? I mean, he was young. He had to be like teens or very early 20s.

TS: Well, it might have been Chris Eldridge.

PM: That's the guy. Chris Eldridge.

TS: Yeah, that's Ben Eldridge's boy, from the Seldom Scene.

PM: Oh!

TS: Yeah, they call him Critter.


TS: I mean, ever since he was a little kid, he was hanging around everyone and they'd call him Critter.

PM: Boy, he sure could play.

TS: Oh, man, yeah. He played with this group, The Infamous String Dusters.

PM: Oh! He was in the Dusters.

TS: But he plays with Chris Thile now.

PM: Wow.

TS: He's in his group. Yeah, he's great, man. He's going to probably rewrite the book on bluegrass guitar at some point.

PM: Damn! Now he's playing with Chris Thile. Well, yeah, that's a good way to start rewriting the book right there.

TS: [laughs] That'll do it.      continue

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