Cruisin’ on Hiway 99

Local bluegrass group Hiway 99 packed Moxie’s for their debut CD release Friday night. This is a rhythmically hard-driving string band featuring traditional hillbilly songs with tight two-, three- and four-part harmonies and red-hot instrumental breaks. Devoted bluegrass followers hooted and hollered with every song, kids romped around, and now and then folks just kicked back with nostalgic looks in their eyes.

Bluegrass music had its heyday from about 1945-48 and popularized again in the ‘60s by backwoods Southern guys with names like Lester and Earl. Hiway 99’s expert musicians don’t just revive these traditional Southern ballads, Civil War songs, gospel tunes, etc., they fire them up like a moonshine still.

Lloyd Foote aces the banjo with three-finger rolls and other complicated licks, cracking corny Hee-Haw-type jokes between songs, but getting laughs anyway. Dan Van Meter is probably the hill-billiest mandolin picker around, strumming totally upbeat double-time and hitting amazing velocity in lead solos. Adding mellow steel sounds on resonator guitar, Craig Walters shines in strong, high-pitched lead vocals. Josie Donegan plays solid rhythm guitar, sings excellent harmonies, and lights up with stage presence. Her too rare lead vocals in songs like “Love Me or Leave Me Alone” steal the show. Rocking on the stand-up bass, Jerry Logan practically dances with the thing, sometimes pounding and slapping the strings percussion-style. Logan also writes good original tunes, like a ballad called “Little Willy” about “a ramblin’ guy murderer” who finally goes straight and settles down.

Songs I liked best were “Pardon Me,” a fast piece with fine two-part harmony by Walters and Donegan and skillful solos by Walters and Van Meter, and “Blue Darlin'” in slow waltz time, a nice break from a lot of fast four-beat tunes.

Though the songs started sounding alike to me after a while, I learned that the music is only one part of the bluegrass scene and maybe is meant for more than just listening. Overall, Hiway 99’s professional but down-home performance was great, even for an outsider.