SPRING LAKE — Being a member of a bluegrass group for nearly two decades isn't too much different from being a member of a close-knit family. At least that's the way Blue Highway's Rob Ickes sees it.
As a Dobro player and founding member of Blue Highway, Ickes has his share of stories about the band's trying moments, the doldrums of long road trips and occasional weird gigs. Still, Ickes believes the group's best days are still ahead.
"This is a very creative, very dedicated unit," Ickes said by phone this week. "For everyone, it's all about the music. We've always enjoyed playing together and challenging each other. And I think audiences who come to see us instantly recognize that about us."
Blue Highway, which headlines Nov. 24 at the annual Sertoma Youth Ranch Thanksgiving Bluegrass Festival, seemed destined for accolades from the moment the band debuted in December 1994. Ickes and fellow band members Tim Stafford (guitar), Jason Burleson (banjo, guitar, mandolin), Shawn Lane (mandolin, fiddle) and Wayne Taylor (bass) all had stellar credentials for their contributions to other groups. And in a genre that often suffers from stylistic sameness, the quintet immediately set out in search of new ground.
Through the strong songwriting of Lane, Stafford and Taylor, Blue Highway established itself with original offerings such as Cold and Lowdown Lonesome Blues, Wild Urge to Ramble, Two Soldiers and Through the Window of a Train, which earned Song of the Year honors from the International Bluegrass Music Association. Indeed, one music critic gushed that the band had "an eerie way of making bluegrass feel contemporary, edgy even, without abandoning any of the laws laid down by its founding fathers."
Ickes credits much of the distinctiveness of Blue Highway's sound to the band's attitude toward creativity.
"We don't believe in standing still," he said.
Along the way, Blue Highway has earned wide industry recognition and has earned just about every major bluegrass award — Ickes has been named IBMA's top Dobro player 13 times — as well as two Grammy nominations.
Ickes, who also serves as a part-time member of the jazz/bluegrass hybrid Tony Rice Unit, said he fully expects Blue Highway to be around for a while.
"I don't think you're going to find five people these days who enjoy playing music together so much," he said. "We're a band of brothers."
Logan Neill can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (352) 848-1435.