High Fidelity Banjo Player’s Blues Rebel Records
Capsule: Bluegrass music performed to the highest level by youthful revisionists.
Paragraph to get to the point: When the history of bluegrass music is discussed, it is largely done so from a male perspective. The IBMA’s own Hall of Fame (previously Hall of Honor) is just one piece of evidence: who were the first members? From the first class of 1991─Bill, Lester, and Earl─through its tenth in 2000, no females were inducted. The first─Mother Maybelle and Sara Carter as part of the Carter Family (2001)─weren’t even bluegrass (or pre-bluegrass) artists. The Lewis Family (2006) included women, and Louise Scruggs (2010) and Marian Leighton Levy (2016) went in (justifiably) for business acumen and influence. It wasn’t until 2017 that Hazel Dickens & Alice Gerrard were finally inducted as the first female front-persons, and having got that out of their system, the gatekeepers have since deemed that sufficient.
The point: High Fidelity therefore are revisionists. They come from a place of loving, appreciating, and comprehending the deepest of bluegrass traditions─refined vocal harmony, instrumental proficiency, a perceptible appreciation for the country and associated songbooks, sacred songs and perspectives─but insert female voices and musicianship to a degree many other groups would never consider. They do this not out of tokenism, but from a viewpoint of equality and vision: this is how the music could have sounded, had all things been considered fair game since 1946.
The bulk of the review: Banjo Player’s Blues is steeped in bluegrass traditions, and on this─the group’s third long player─High Fidelity attains an even greater level of proficiency. While the group may still need be encouraged to introduce original material into their recorded repertoire, one finds nothing else to fault among the thirteen numbers and 35-minutes presented here.
High Fidelity knows what works as bluegrass. While recording and performing for modern audiences, the quintet recognizes that the tight vocal harmony, hard-driving approach is what folks continue to find appealing. As Corrina Rose Logston (fiddle, guitar, and vocals) writes of the High Fidelity mission in the liner notes, “firmly rooted in where we’ve come from while pushing forward to meet what new things we can create collectively.”
Providing a tangible bridge from the first generation to contemporary circumstance is the inclusion of Jesse McReynolds, picking and singing on “Tears of Regret,” a number the McReynolds’ recorded in 1955. Also from Jim & Jesse comes the smokin’ “The South Bound Train” (twin banjos from Jeremy Stephens and Kurt Stephenson) and “Take My Ring From Your Finger,” while “Turkey In the Straw” and “Feudin’ Banjos” (featuring tenor and 5-string) were played in more than a few concert appearances.
Separated by generations, these songs are expertly presented, with as much fervor and vigor as one expects from those raised and trained within─but not limited by─tradition. Stephens’ voice is ideal for “Picture on the Wall;” one can well-imagine he and Corinna sitting around the parlour, singing with Carters of long ago.
Hearing “His Charming Love,” (featuring Vickie Vaughn and Daniel Amick,) “Got A Little Light,” and (with bassist Vaughn on lead) “Dear God” performed to this level is quite breathtaking: one doesn’t need to be a believer to be impressed…although it probably helps!
Additional outstanding performances include “You Made the Break” (Tennessee River Boys,) “Banjo Player’s Blues” (Charlie Monroe,) and “Old Home Place” (Don Reno, Red Smiley, & the Tennessee Cutups). High Fidelity refreshes each of these oft-heard pieces, making them their own while maintaining connection to the past. They dig especially deep on “Old Home Place,” kicking off the album with hardcore a hardcore mando chop and leads from Amick.
One-two closing: High Fidelity is punching hard to be considered the premier ‘next generation’ traditional bluegrass band working the circuit. Banjo Player’s Blues provides all the evidence necessary to attest to their excellence; the bluegrass album of the year…so far!
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