By Tim Gardner
The North Carolina High Country is known as a music haven, with many talented singers, musicians, singing duets and groups, songwriters and other contributors to the industry living in, or having roots to the region. One of its most noted musical personalities is Jason Burleson, who hails from Avery County.
With a genuine gift for vocals, playing instruments and also songwriting, Jason’s musical finesse and versatility makes him one of the most explosive and dynamic performers on the Bluegrass circuit.
A founder of the nationally-acclaimed Blue Highway Band and its original banjo player, Burleson has a distinctive banjo-picking style and anchors the group’s sound with his growling bass vocals. In 2019, Blue Highway celebrates 25 years of touring, with three of its other original members still intact.
The quintet that makes up the Blue Highway Band has gone on to be one of the most celebrated in its genre. Blue Highway has earned an amazing 28 collective International Bluegrass Music Association (IBMA) Awards, 6 Society for the Preservation of Bluegrass Music of America (SPBGMA) Awards, one Dove Award, three Grammy nominations as a band, plus two Grammy Awards among its current members. Blue Highway’s album “Original Traditional” was nominated for a 2017 Grammy Award for Best Bluegrass Album. And the Blue Highway Band was voted the Favorite Bluegrass Artist of All Time by the readers of the Bluegrass Today publication in April 2016.
Burleson’s instrumental compositions form an integral part of the Blue Highway repertoire, including “The North Cove (Through the Window of a Train),” hailed by one critic in the Smoky Mountain News as “a burning instrumental with a sinuous melody” that offers “more to chew on than just the whiz-bang pyrotechnics of many modern bluegrass instrumentals.”
Burleson grew up in a musical family and community. “Three of my grandparents played old-time, two-finger banjo,” he said. He also has uncles and cousins who played various musical instruments. Additionally, musicians Jim and Jennie Vance owned a music park in Avery County and hosted numerous Bluegrass bands. “There were a lot of places around Avery to hear good music,” he said.
Burleson began playing at age eleven when his father, R.Z., a fan of Bluegrass legends, Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs, asked if he’d like to learn to play the banjo. Jason was immediately enthralled, and his cousin, Jeter Griffith, showed him some basic rolls on a banjo and a few tunes to get him started. Shortly after, Burleson was playing banjo in a local band named “Bluegrass Tradition” with fellow-musicians Herb Greene (also a noted First Tenor singer) and Herman Coffey. Burleson also learned to play guitar, and he played in a group featuring another local musician, Perry Woodie, in the late 1980s.
Burleson’s professional career as a musician started when he worked for a few years at Tweetsie Railroad in Blowing Rock playing in its band. He has not stopped performing since. “I’ve just been lucky to have so many opportunities in the music business,” he said. But it is musicianship that has propelled Burleson to a successful and accomplished career. He is a wizard on the banjo and rhythm guitar, and he also plays mandolin and bass guitar. Burleson has been playing with the Blue Highway Band since 1994, and that keeps him busy performing full-time.
He has had the opportunity to play with a number of his musical idols, including Tony Rice, Sam Bush and Stuart Duncan. With the Blue Highway Band, Burleson has performed at music festivals and related venues all over the country, including the Grammy Award presentations.
Writing for the Memphis Area Bluegrass Association, Betty Westmoreland observed about Burleson and his habit of saying very little onstage: “His banjo does the talking, as is true of most superb performers. Burleson is part of that fine crop of North Carolina banjo players. There must be something about the air, or water, or the soil in that part of the country—so many fine banjo players seem to come out of those hills.”
One of Burleson’s most cherished honors came with the making of The Jason Burleson Signature Spirit Line by Prucha Bluegrass Instruments. That particular banjo was unveiled in the Fall of 2015 and is available for purchase on the Prucha web site (pruchabanjos.cz).
More information about Jason Burleson and booking him and the Blue Highway Band can be obtained on the group’s computer web site at: bluehighwayband.com or by writing: Blue Highway Band, PO Box 7411, Kingsport, TN 37664.
-Some information from blueridgeheritage.com that highlights musical personalities from this region was used in this article, as were certain details from bluehighwayband.com.