As one of the founding members of Blue Highway, Shawn Lane has nearly 30 years of experience playing in one of the most acclaimed modern bluegrass bands.
But now the multi-talented singer, songwriter, and instrumentalist is exploring a very different, pared-down, and powerful sound working in a duo with Richard Bennett, an equally respected and compelling musician.
“You can just hear every nuance of the song and the music because there's only two instruments,” Lane says. “And because there's only two of you, there's nothing to hide behind. You can have a closer relationship with a song if there's fewer of you.”
Lane and Bennet began writing together in 2017. Their 2019 EP, Land and Harbor, was well-received and encouraged the collaboration. A new song is scheduled for release in 2024, and a seven-song EP will follow.
“We’ve always been good friends, but we started talking more on the phone and writing a few songs here about four or five years ago,” Lane recalls. “And we like playing with one another. His rhythm is like a wall of good music coming at you, so it makes you play better to have rhythm like that behind you. It's just like a crosscut saw. Two men sawing a tree down. It's kind of like you're working with one tool.”
Blue Highway is still very much a going concern, but the band has cut back on touring. Last October, the band released a single, "The North Side," written by Lane with his brother Chad Lane and Gerald Ellenburg. "And we had Grayson, my oldest son, sing tenor on it. That's the third single from this album we have done with the band, and that will probably be the last one before the whole record is released."
Lane's remarkable career includes stints with Ricky Skaggs and Kentucky Thunder, Doyle Lawson and Quicksilver, and he's performed with The Earls of Leicester. Bennett was on the road at age 15, performing with Flatt and Scruggs fiddle player Benny Sims. After a regular spot at Dollywood, he joined J.D. Crowe and The New South. He also toured with Mike Auldridge, Bobby Osborne, and Jimmy Gaudreau.
Lane's first instrument was the fiddle, and his primary instrument during his long tenure with Blue Highway has been the mandolin. But he turns to the guitar for writing and performing with Bennett. "We write the songs on guitars to get the chord structure. So I just thought, 'Well, I'll just stay on here because that's the way we wrote them. But they feel good this way, and there's no need to change it."
Lane and Bennett’s songs might be described as introspective, evocative, and textured. Lane says the elegant chord structures have several influences.
"That comes from the piano of Michael McDonald (of the Doobie Brothers) and Bill Labounty. As a songwriter, he's kind of unsung. He didn't really have a glamorous career, but he's done a trainload of stuff and put out a bunch of good records. And I guess Tony Rice is our number one influence. If it wasn't for Tony's records, I wouldn't be in music. And it's not just his guitar playing, but his song selection and the way he made those records."
Richard Bennett's credentials as a Tony Rice devotee are impeccable. He performed with Rice and filled in for him with The Tony Rice Unit and The Bluegrass Album Band.
“Richard’s also a great singer,” Lane explains. “He just doesn't care about singing all that much. He'd rather just play and support the song. So I do most of the singing when we perform. He's a great person, too. That's one of the main reasons I play with him. And we hang out together because he's just a fantastic human being.”
Lane enjoys playing in a duo after years in a full-blown bluegrass band and appreciates that this configuration can work in different venues.
“You can play in more places and in quieter rooms. And, of course, you don't have to make as much money to go out and have a good show. It takes less for two people to go through all the overhead out here than it does for five or six people. So you can work smaller rooms and more intimate places, which is good for acoustic music.
"You don't have to play at 'ten' the whole time, and then you have nowhere to go after that. You can play softly, and you can play a little harder. And both things get noticed in a duet situation where they don't so much in a four or five-piece band. It really fires you up to do more because you feel that. You feel you're deeper into the song, you feel more from it. I love it."