Review: High Fidelity – Hills and Home

SURPRISE! I’m a “traditionalist” when it comes to bluegrass music. I literally grew up on it. I love bands who have the chops to re-create the old original numbers, like the Earls of Leicester. I also like bluegrass bands who figure out how to do “new” music but make it sound like the old way, as Mile 12 does.

The band High Fidelity leans toward the re-creation category, but their versions aren’t slavish copies. They are expert interpreters of Reno & Smiley, Jim & Jesse, the old Chuck Wagon Gang (a pre-bluegrass family gospel group from Texas), the Lilly Brothers, the Country Gentlemen, and others from bluegrass history. Also on Hills and Home they ingeniously apply a Reno & Smiley treatment to rocker Buddy Holly’s first recording “I Got Those Got to Get You Near Me Blues”. Sirius/XM radio has played this High Fidelity cut all winter, and I thought it must be an undiscovered Reno & Smiley number. I was quite shocked when I learned it came from Buddy Holly!

So if you like traditional pickin’ and singin’, you’re going to love Hills and Home. The material feels and sounds traditional. However they are not playing bluegrass jam session “warhorses”. You may have never heard these particular songs before.

“My Savior’s Train” is a salute to the Monroe Brothers pre-bluegrass duet record and the Lilly Brothers 1950s slamming bluegrass recording. “The Leaf of Love” is a country duet that feels just like Reno & Smiley or maybe even the Louvin Brothers. “Hills and Home” was a 1960s Country Gentlemen cut. “Mother’s White Rose” is an obscure but warm Charlie Monroe composition and recording.

“Follow The Leader”

“Follow the Leader” is a jaw-dropping pyrotechnic display on what is unquestionably Don Reno’s most fiendish banjo breakdown – yet, High Fidelity takes it into the stratosphere by doing it as a TWIN BANJO extravaganza featuring band leader Jeremy Stephens and banjo man Kurt Stephenson. Unbelievable! TWO Reno experts in one band!

Let me digress here in noting that Kurt Stephenson did not appear with the band at the Joe Val festival in February; High Fidelity was just a quartet. I thought to myself “well I guess no twin banjo stuff after all”. Au contraire! Mandolinist Daniel Amick strapped on the second banjo and played Stephenson’s part to a T! I was stunned. Not one, not two, but THREE Reno fiends in one band! For all I know fiddler Corinna Rose Logston Stephens (Jeremy’s wife) and bassist Vickie Vaughn also play Reno banjo. If you have the slightest admiration for Don Reno’s banjo style, High Fidelity will blow your mind.

“I Ain’t Gonna Work Tomorrow” which was a recent single for the Earls of Leicester and Jeff White, is done here in an alternative style leaning toward Reno & Smiley and the original Carter Family record. “I Will Always Be Waiting for You” is an old Jim & Jesse number. (Members of High Fidelity moonlight as Jesse McReynolds’ band The Virginia Boys when he appears on the Grand Ole Opry.)

“Maple on the Hill” is done in the Mainer’s Mountaineers’ style. “I Would Not Be Denied” is not only a Lilly Brothers salute, but the banjo break is a Don Stover salute. “He’s Passing Along This Way” is reminiscent of the Stanley Brothers’ 1960s record with a great George Shuffler style guitar break. Corinna Rose fiddles a nice version of “Grey Eagle” that’s highly influenced by a radio tape of Benny Martin fiddling with Flatt & Scruggs in 1953.

The CD closes with “Will the Circle Be Unbroken?” which is based on the Monroe Brothers record, not the more familiar Carter Family standard. This is “deep catalog” stuff. A very moving performance.

Band leader Jeremy Stephens plays an old Gibson Southern Jumbo guitar with authority – both lead and rhythm. He also plays twin banjo on a 1960s Gibson Mastertone. He is a stout and true lead singer. Wife Corinna Rose fiddles away in solid 1950s style. She was mentored by Jim & Jesse’s fiddler Jim Buchanan. She sings the most satisfying “gutsy” tenor! No vibrato – straight open-throat roaring like Wilma Lee Cooper, Molly O’Day, Sara Carter, Delia Bell, etc. I swear, on the Reno & Smiley numbers she’s channeling Don Reno’s tenor. Daniel Amick plays mostly mandolin, also lead guitar, and as mentioned above, Reno style banjo on another old bowtie Mastertone. Kurt Stephenson plays bowtie banjo and guitar on the CD. Vickie Vaughn is a fine singer, and an even better bluegrass bass fiddle player. It’s rare to find a bass player doing other than 1-5-1-5-1-5 notes. I sat bolt upright in the Joe Val audience when I heard her playing old time Nashville master-level bass licks and patterns that only a handful know about any more. Without further comment, let me just drop one old bass players’ term, the “1-2-5” pattern. Nuff said.

High Fidelity treats their music with love, respect and reverence — they perform in dark suits and dresses. They are the REAL THING. Additionally, these young people seem to be having the time of their lives performing this wonderful music. Several times at Joe Val, Corrina Rose broke out in contagious giggles. They are endearing, as well as impressive. Their banjo-driven sound truly sparkles.

So get their new project Hills and Home with no fear. It won’t be too “far out”, or “complex”, or “over my head”. It’s a fine package: good recorded sound, good graphics, great selections. High Fidelity will be maintaining AND growing the traditional core of bluegrass music. Do NOT miss a chance to see them live. I couldn’t be happier for them, and us.

(Rebel RB-CD-1864)

Dick Bowden

Dick Bowden recently retired after a 45 year career in the paper industry, and moved from Connecticut to Big Indian NY (Ulster County) where he ekes out a precarious existence as a groundskeeper. Dick has been performing bluegrass music on banjo and guitar since 1966 in his home state of Maine, throughout New England, and internationally with The Case Brothers - Martin & Gibson. He has performed for HVBA with the Old Time Bluegrass Singers, and also sent in a squadron of Dick Bowden's Flying Circus. Most recently Dick has played Dobro (tm) with the Tennessee Mafia Jug Band. Dick has written many articles for Bluegrass Unlimited, Bluegrass Today, MoonShiner (the Japanese bluegrass magazine) and HVBA.

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