Bluegrass traditionalists often lament how far many artists have strayed from the sounds of classic bluegrass from the 1940s-’60s. Many bands that call themselves traditional these days have more in common with early ’90s bluegrass and country than they do Bill Monroe – not that I’m complaining, just stating an opinion. When the members of High Fidelity call themselves traditional, however, they truly mean it. With their latest album from Rebel Records, Banjo Player’s Blues, they channel Reno & Smiley, Jim & Jesse, and early brother duets for a timeless sound in which even the strictest traditionalists can find no fault.
The album opens with a familiar title – Old Home Place – but it’s not the jam standard made so popular by J.D. Crowe and The Dillards. Instead, it’s a deep cut from Reno & Smiley, kicked off with excellent banjo from Kurt Stephenson. The banjo keeps the number chugging along, while Corinna Rose Logston’s fiddle and Daniel Amick’s mandolin take turns with fine breaks. Another strong number is lead single The South Bound Train, a high energy song from the Jim & Jesse catalog. Everything about this one is spot-on, from the riveting twin banjos (courtesy of Stephenson and lead singer Jeremy Stephens) to the constant drive that never lets up.
Both Logston and Stephens have spent time playing with Jesse McReynolds, and are astute students of his style of music, so it’s little surprise that several other songs on the album are pulled from Jim & Jesse. Take My Ring from Your Finger is one of those cheerful heartbreak songs that are so popular in our genre. It’s both bitter and resigned at the same time, with the singer realizing that he never made his wife happy, and even letting her keep the family home: “When he carries you over the threshold, then I’ll hope you’ll be happy evermore.” McReynolds himself can be heard on Tears of Regret, another fine heartbreak number.
Several Gospel songs are standouts, including the harmony showcase His Charming Love. Close your eyes while listening, and you’ll be in a little country church house almost a century ago. It’s worth a repeat just to listen to the way the band members’ voices blend together with such ease. Got a Little Light is a foot-tapper with great phrasing from Stephens, while bass player Vickie Vaughn takes the lead on Dear God, which finds the singer asking forgiveness for occasionally straying away from the right path.
The band members get to show off their musical skill on a few instrumentals. Logston absolutely tears up Turkey in the Straw (you’ll be up clogging before you realize it). Both it and Feudin’ Banjos also feature double banjos from Stephenson and Stephens. The latter, in a nod to Arthur Smith and Don Reno’s original, includes both 5-string and tenor banjo. Add this to the title track (“When day is o’er my bones are sore from working all day long, and nothing else can cheer me best than a good ole banjo song”), and banjo players should certainly find plenty to enjoy here.
There have been a few albums already released this year that I’ve thought would be good contenders for Album of the Year, but Banjo Player’s Blues has jumped up close to the top of the list. The musicianship here is close to perfection, as are the harmonies, especially those between Stephens and Logston. If you’ve seen High Fidelity live, you know their spot-on 1950s sensibilities aren’t just recording magic, but that they’re just as good, if not better, in person. Traditional fans, buy this album. You won’t be disappointed. People who aren’t traditional fans, buy this album. You might learn something.
For more information on High Fidelity, visit their website. Their new album is available from several online music retailers.