When Highway 101 comes to Salt Lake City next week for an Aug. 16 concert with the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, the group will be bringing along its hits ("Whiskey, If You Were a Woman," "Somewhere Tonight," "Cry, Cry, Cry"); it's Best Vocal Group of 1988 award, and plenty of Jack Daniels.

Not the whiskey, the guitarist; probably the most inventive lead guitarist in country music today.Daniels' growling, gutty leads - often played on the bass strings - are showing up all over the industry now. He pioneered the sound. And - along with John Jorgenson of the Desert Rose Band - the man has brought freshness and creativity to country lead playing, a corner of country music that's been sadly neglected over the years.

Daniels spoke about his role in Highway 101 in a telephone interview.

"There's a lot of pure country overtones in our style," he said, "but it's traditional music with an edge. There are various influences in the band. Paulette Carlson (the lead singer) is a knock-out vocalist, and Cactus (Moser) on drums has a lot of rock feel. Our producer has been really good at allowing each of our musical influences to come to the top."

For such reasons, Highway 101, like the Desert Rose Band, is seen as a group of musicians with individual faces, styles and contributions; quite unlike the "lead singer backed by generic musicians" so many country music groups seem to be.

And those bass leads of Jack Daniels will probably keep his name on the tongues of listeners for some time.

"The bass lead things evolved while we were cutting the first album," he said. "The rest of the band liked them so much I kept at it. One day we cut `Cry, Cry, Cry' and I had to run out during a break and borrow John Jorgenson's six-string bass. But that was fine. He'd blown up a Vox amp a few weeks before and had borrowed mine, so he owed me a favor."

- Jerry Johnston