Once in a great while a new band and new recording comes along that captures my attention. This CD instantly propelled me to the 1950s and the music of my idols. It caught me by surprise, but shouldn’t have. I already knew Jeremy Stephens to be a longtime student of an era that was years before he was born. His heroes include the Blue Sky Boys, the Stanley Brothers, and Don Reno, among others. He recently spent six years as guitarist and bass singer with the legendary Chuck Wagon Gang. I was disappointed when I heard he was leaving—that is, until I heard High Fidelity.
It’s not accurate to call them a “new” band. They’ve been around since 2014, and won the SPBGMA band contest that year (easy to understand why). When I talked to Jeremy during his tenure with the Chuck Wagon Gang (see my review of their DVD, Feb. 2016), he never mentioned High Fidelity, so this was a revelation.
The whole band shares the same commitment to the traditional sounds of bluegrass. Jeremy’s band partner and wife, fiddler Corinna Logston Stephens, is a student of the first generation of bluegrass fiddlers—e.g., Benny Martin, Tater Tate, Mack Magaha—and does it ever show! And on top of that, she’s a great singer, too. It turns out she’s been on the bluegrass scene for quite a while. She’s all over YouTube videos, once you know where to look. Corinna and Jeremy show up in various groups—Chris Henry, Rob Montgomery, Eddie Gill—musicians who all have one thing in common; uncompromising hardcore bluegrass.
Banjo man Kurt Stephenson plays straight-ahead Scruggs, but sneaks in a melodic riff occasionally, just so you know he can. But for me, his mastery of Ralph Stanley’s syncopated roll from the 1950s on “Cry From The Cross” and “I’m Lost, I’ll Never Find The Way” won me over completely. Ralph’s banjo style went through a number of phases, and what he was playing in the ’50s was it for me. And Kurt has captured that totally; I’ve never heard anyone else do that.
The choice of material is without reproach. They weave songs by Carter Stanley, Charlie Monroe, Karl & Harty, Rebe & Rabe, and others from obscure sources into a brilliant patchwork. Each song is a new and totally unique experience. Unlike many of the younger groups of today who seem to be experimenting to see how far they can distance their sound from original bluegrass and still get airplay on bluegrass radio, High Fidelity has chosen a different path. Steeped in the sound of the early masters, they (like the Johnson Mountain Boys of the 1980s) are in the forefront of what seems to be a growing movement with some younger musicians to return to the music’s roots. Hi-Fi Bluegrass is my pick as the album of the year. (High Fidelity, P.O. Box 261, Whites Creek, TN 37189, www.corrinacorinna.com.)WVS