Gaven Largent was a kid growing up in the Shenandoah Valley when he first heard Blue Highway, and especially the playing of dobro great Rob Ickes. So when a call came following Ickes’ departure from the band late last year, Largent found himself at a very youthful crossroads. Still in his teens, he was asked not only to join one of the most esteemed bluegrass bands in the business but to take over for a musician who was a major formative inspiration.
“Those five guys, they made the sound,” Largent said as the band prepared to play at Friday’s Festival of the Bluegrass tonight. “When you hear Blue Highway on the radio, you know it right away. Everybody played a role in making that sound. They weren’t necessarily worried, but were kind of curious to see how the sound would change when I came in. It’s obviously not the same as when Rob was in the band, but they really seem to be happy with the way everybody gels together.
“You bring somebody new into a band setting, and everything is going to click a little bit different. So it’s not been a bad thing, because everybody is really happy with the way things are going. I’m thrilled being able to play with these guys and experience the kind of groove that they put forth.”
Blue Highway first played the Festival of the Bluegrass in 1996, cementing Ickes’ status as one of the most progressive innovators on the dobro since the emergence of Jerry Douglas two decades earlier. Ickes amiably parted ways with the band in December, after a tenure of 21 years and a title of the most-awarded instrumentalist in the history of the International Bluegrass Music Association. So, no pressure for his successor, right?
“It was something,” said Largent, who turned 20 in April. “Everybody I talked to, they said, ‘You know what, kid? You’ve got some big shoes to fill.’ With so many Blue Highway songs, Rob did the kickoff. People instantly know those songs as soon as they hear the first couple of notes. They go, ‘OK, this is Marbletown (the Mark Knopfler-penned title tune to Blue Highway’s 2005 album), or ‘This is Lonesome Pine’ (title tune to the band’s 1995 album, written by bassist Wayne Taylor) or whatever. They know that right from the get-go. To fill the shoes of somebody that was not only there for so long but was such an important part of establishing Blue Highway and how their songs were arranged, has been daunting.
“I’ve tried to stay true to what Rob played because that’s what people are used to hearing. If I just went in there and came up with my own thing, people would go, ‘Well, that’s great, but that’s not the way I remember it.’ So I try to stay true to what Rob did when he was with the band. When I joined, I went back and listened to the records and really tried to take the most important things that Rob played, that people would recognize and people would listen for. Then on top of that I would try to play around the rest of the things he played and make that my own kind of sound.”
The new Blue Highway lineup — which otherwise consists of founding members Taylor, banjoist Jason Burleson, mandolinist and fiddler Shawn Lane, and guitarist Tim Stafford — is nearing completion of its first recording without Ickes. A release date could come as early as August.
“It’s sort of an original-traditional idea, where all the songs on the album are ones the guys have written, yet all have a traditional feel,” Largent said. “You’ve got so many great songwriters in the band, so they pulled from the more traditional sounding songs and everything came together. I’m really excited and really pleased with what we did. It’s a whole new sound. It’s crazy to listen to it and think, ‘I’m the one that helped change that.’
“I’m humbled every time I get onstage with them. Sometimes, I feel, ‘Man, I really shouldn’t be here. I don’t deserve to be up here with these guys.’ But they have really helped to quell my fears, so I just stand up there and have a great time. They’re so laid-back and easy-going that it’s a joy for me to play with these guys.”
If you go
Festival of the Bluegrass
When: June 9-12
Where: Kentucky Horse Park Campground, 4089 Iron Works Pike
7:40 p.m.: Blue Belles
8:30 p.m.: Hogslop String Band
9:20 p.m.: Lonesome River Band
10:10 p.m.: The Wooks
1 p.m.: True Life Travelers
1:50 p.m.: Blue Belles
2:40 and 7:40 p.m.: Junior Sisk and Ramblers Choice
3:30 and 8:30 p.m.: Audie Blaylock and Redline
4:20 p.m. and 10:10 p.m.: Blue Highway
5:10 and 11 p.m.: Russell Moore and IIIrd Tyme Out
6 and 9:20 p.m.: Blue Mafia
6:50 p.m.: The Moron Brothers
12 noon: Open stage
1 p.m.: Cane Run
1:50 p.m.: Restless Leg String Band
2:40 and 10:10 p.m.: 23 String Band
3:30 and 11 p.m.: Town Mountain
4:20 p.m. and 8:30 p.m.: Valerie Smith and Liberty Pike
5:10 and 9:20 p.m.: The Seldom Scene
6 p.m.: Dry Branch Fire Squad
6:50 p.m.: Stephanie Jeter
7:40 p.m.: Mikaya Taylor
10 a.m.: True Life Travelers
10:40 p.m. Kentucky Blue
11:30 a.m.: Dry Branch Fire Squad