California Report: Tyler Stegall of the High Water Line

Joel Cofield, Tyler Stegall, Tj Carskadon, Clare Armenante, and Jim Toggweiler

Tyler Stegall plays banjo in the San Francisco-based band, the High Water Line. Though relatively new to the Bay Area bluegrass scene, Tyler and the band have made great strides in a short time. They have a new CD, a monthly residency at Club Deluxe in the Haight Asbury district, and a recent showcase performance at the California Bluegrass Association’s annual Fathers Day Festival in Grass Valley.

Hey Tyler, thanks for your time. 2019 has been a big year for the band. Tell us about it.

Hey Dave, it’s great to be talking with you. The past year has been a big one for us, and it’s been quite a ride so far. We started 2019 by going into our first full-length recording project, played at the Berkeley Bluegrass Festival, performed on the main stage at the CBA’s Fathers Day Festival in Grass Valley, opened up for Wood & Wire at the Freight & Salvage, released our debut record, and started a bluegrass residency at Club Deluxe in San Francisco. 

Playing the main stage at CBA Fathers Day Festival must have been fun. What were your takeaways from that experience?

Playing Vern’s stage in 2018 was a really important milestone for both myself and the High Water Line, but being selected to perform on the main stage in 2019 was an absolute thrill. Getting to play our music at such an important festival for the California bluegrass scene meant the world to me, and sharing that experience with the other members of the band was just as rewarding. 

HWL seems like a band where everyone contributes evenly. Tell us about the members.

We all approach the High Water Line with a band-first mentality. Jim Toggweiler plays the five-string electric bass and has a deep appreciation for funk and soul music, and it shines through in his playing. Tj Carskadon is a rock-solid mandolin player with a profound knowledge of bluegrass, jazz, and country music. Joel Cofield holds it down on the guitar, drawing on a wide range of influences from Stevie Ray Vaughan to Derek Trucks. Clare Armenante plays the fiddle in just about every genre you can name, but has a fondness for country music. As for myself, I play the banjo. Everyone in the band contributes to vocals in both leads and harmonies. 

How did the band meet and gel?

Ever since my first trip up to Grass Valley for the Fathers Day Festival back in 2014, I knew that I wanted to join or start a band and get up on Vern’s Stage. In early 2017 I started to think about what kind of band I might want to be in and who I’d enjoy making music with. I brought the members of the band together one by one, and that first practice with all of us was really one of those “woah” moments where I felt like we had a really strong groove.

Tell us about the new release.

It didn’t take long for us to realize that we wanted to make a record, and we’re excited to have released Introducing The High Water Line this year. It features a diverse list of heartfelt and hard-driving originals, and creative workings of less familiar bluegrass songs and recent country songs that we love. We self-produced this record, and it was recorded and mixed by our good friend Jon Grier. This was the first big recording project I’ve been a part of, and I think we grew as a band from the experience.

I like the original material. Who writes the songs?

Working on original music with the band is one of my favorite things, so I’m glad to hear that you like our original material. I wrote North of Jackson with some help from Tj. The Worst Kind of Lonely and 7:31 were also written by Tj, with Clare also contributing to 7:31. We work on arrangements together at practice nearly every week, so everyone contributes in some way. 

How do you discover and decide what covers to record?

We try to pick songs that work well with our sound, then put our own spin on it. We all enjoy the work that goes into arranging a song or instrumental, both individually and as a group. There’s an agreed-upon philosophy in the band of trying out an idea and thinking about how it sounds before rejecting it. All of the covers on our new record, Introducing The High Water Line, were selected because when we play them, it feels like us.

Are there any crowd or band favorites?

We enjoy our original material the most, and we’re working on more right now. Even if it’s not a song or instrumental we’ve written, crowds respond well to original arrangements that lean into our strengths as a band. We’ve never really tried to bill ourselves as a traditional bluegrass band, and it’s a great feeling when a crowd responds well to something new.

What challenges have you or the band had and how did you work through them?

Clare is the only full-time musician in the band. The rest of us have jobs outside of the band, and it can make scheduling difficult at times. We do a pretty good job of practicing once a week though, and if anything, it’s only improved our communication and planning skills. I’d love to take a stab at doing music as a full-time job one day.

Where can people purchase or hear the High Water Line’s music?

You can get our CD at any of our live performances and hear it on Spotify, Apple Music, YouTube, and other online streaming platforms. 

What is your history with bluegrass music and the banjo?

In college, I started to regret not getting into music earlier in my life. Not long after that, a good friend of mine had me listen to New York City by the Punch Brothers, and Noam Pikelny’s banjo playing affected me unlike any other piece of music that I’d heard up to that point in my life. The next day I decided to start learning the banjo. I later found out that my great grandfather played the fiddle and my great-great grandfather played the banjo. There was a lot of music in my family’s history at one point, but this wasn’t something I discovered until I started learning to play the banjo.

Who have you studied banjo with to hone your sound?

I started studying with Ryan Breen about a month after moving to San Francisco. I owe a lot to Ryan’s mentorship and for introducing me to traditional bluegrass and the California Bluegrass scene. I’ve also spent the last few years studying with Bill Evans trying to further refine my playing. He’s helped me to find my own sound.

Have you ever played anything other than banjo?

Not really, no. I’d like to get around to learning other instruments eventually, but the banjo really is the one for me. I’d like to find time to work on some rhythm guitar at some point, and maybe a little bit of clawhammer. That being said, this past year at the Fathers Day Festival in Grass Valley, I got the chance to play some old-time music, three finger style, with Robin Fischer and Rowan McCallister in a jam. That was a lot of fun and something I’d like to explore some more in the future.

What are your current favorite fiddle tunes?

This is always a hard question to answer, but lately I’ve been listening to a lot to Kenny Baker Plays Bill Monroe – and Noam Pikelny Plays Kenny Baker Plays Bill Monroe. I enjoy transcribing fiddle tunes or fiddle breaks onto the banjo and feel that it helps me focus on finding melody by ear. A few tunes that I’ve been working on recently are Denver Belle, Lonesome Moonlight Waltz, and Squirrel Hunters.

Do you have any fun shows coming up?

We’ve got a bluegrass residency at Club Deluxe in San Francisco every first Wednesday of the month that we’re excited about. It’s always a great time playing there, and Club Deluxe always attracts people who care about live music. 

What’s on tap for 2020?

We’re hoping to appear at more bluegrass festivals and other music festivals in 2020, as well as continuing to work on more original music and continuing to grow as a band. 

We sometimes play this game… Beatles or Stones. Which are you?

Flatt & Scruggs.

Ha, great answer. Is there anything I forgot to ask?

I’m a board member of Bluegrass Pride, and I strongly believe in its mission to show people that bluegrass is for everybody.

 

Thank much, Tyler, for your time and best of luck with the band.

Take care Dave. It was great talking with you.

Thanks to copy editor Jeanie Poling.

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About the Author

Dave Berry

Dave Berry is an avid mandolin picker, singer and songwriter who writes an interview column for the monthly California Bluegrass Association (CBA) members publication featuring California regional and national artists who tour California. He grew up in bluegrass country on the Ohio River right between where the Big Sandy and Big Scioto Rivers dump into the Ohio. The columns are also featured on the CBA website at www.cbaweb.org.