Growing up in a family of six siblings in a rural, close-knit Mennonite community near La Crete, in Alberta, Canada, brothers Brad and Curtis Rempel idolized the bluegrass-tinged country pickings of Ricky Skaggs, the California country of Buck Owens, and the family harmonies of the Everly Brothers. Those sounds emanated from the family’s record player, and from an 8-track player their father had hooked up to a car battery in the basement.
The family had no radio. The brothers had never heard of pop artists such as Michael Jackson.
“Brad and I grew up on a lot of old-school music,” says Curtis. “We missed a couple of decades of what was popular in any genre of music, since we had no radio. But we knew who Ricky Skaggs was. We started familiarizing ourselves again with what’s current around 2007.”
Classic country and bluegrass collide with today’s rock-infused sounds on “Make You Mine,” the brothers’ first release after their signing with Atlantic Records/Warner Music Nashville.
“’Make You Mine’ is a barn dance from the 1800s that magically made its way into 2016,” says Curtis.
Band In Transition
High Valley’s sound and lineup have been an evolution over the past several years. Initially a trio with Curtis and Brad’s brother Bryan, the band found success on Canadian country radio, thanks to pop-leaning songs such as “Come On Down” and “She’s With Me.” Their self-released 2007 album earned Album of the Year at the GMA Canada Covenant Awards, while their single “Back To You” won Country Song of the Year honors. They released three more albums, earning five GMA Canada Covenant Awards, including Artist of the Year and Group of the Year. They were nominated for Juno Awards in 2012 and 2016.
Still, the brothers knew if they hoped to expand beyond Canada, some tough choices had to be made. The logistics involved in pursuing a touring career while being based in rural Alberta meant an approximately eight-hour drive to reach an airport.
“There is so much driving involved. You basically had to either move here to Nashville, or not do music,” Brad says.
“It was a crossroads each of us had to come to,” Curtis adds. “Do I want to stay in my hometown or move here and pursue music? Brad and I moved our wives and kids down here [to Nashville]. Bryan chose to raise his family in Alberta. He is happy up there working a more normal 9-to-5 lifestyle.”
Bryan left the group in 2014. After releasing several pop-country singles, Brad and Curtis also had to decide where they stood, musically.
“When country music shifted into a more bro-ish world, we didn’t really know what to do. I don’t think we were confident enough to say, ‘Well, we are really acoustic and bluegrassy,’” said Brad. “So we kind of tried to chase it for a little bit.”
“We tried to be a little bit new-school, but not too current. But being so in the middle, with no extreme, sounded so vanilla,” interjects Curtis.
Now, the wind of popular music is shifting, as fans favor more organic, acoustic-based music in the past several years. It’s a change the brothers welcome with open arms.
“We are not trying to be old-school to be a throwback, that’s just what we’ve done,” says Curtis. “We got excited when we started hearing Miranda Lambert with ‘The House That Built Me,’ and Dierks [Bentley’s] more acoustic stuff, and Lumineers and Mumford [& Sons] and Chris Stapleton, it’s this acoustic stuff. All that stuff makes me real fired up.”
Old-School Meets New School
While the banjo-inflected “Make You Mine” is sonically old-school, the strategy behind selecting the song as a single is decidedly 2016. The Rempels set up a listening site and uploaded approximately 40 worktapes, for their fans to select the songs they liked best.
“Our fans have run the whole show,” says Brad. “It’s a good thing to have several thousand people say, ‘Make You Mine’ is their favorite thing. Literally, 99 percent picked it as their favorite, so we knew that would be the single. So that was a very good sign.”
“Make You Mine” originally appeared as part of their Open Road Recordings project County Line. According to the brothers, after executives at Warner Music Nashville saw the video for “Make You Mine,” they offered the brothers a record deal.
“We had good meetings with a bunch of labels in town. It got real exciting there for a minute,” says Curtis. “But when we met with Cris Lacy, Scott Hendricks and Espo [John Esposito] and [Peter] Strickland, I loved how Warner felt like going to a coffee shop and just hanging out around a hipster wooden table with the entire staff.”
Curtis adds, “They bought into our dream of making this organic, healthy, positive, family-friendly type of music. That’s how we chose Warner.”
The signing has afforded Brad and Curtis to begin crafting an entire album’s worth of new material and time working with ace writers including Ben Stennis, Jaron Johnston and Tom Douglas, as well as Grammy-winning Christian music producer Seth Mosley, who had never produced a country album before.
“This High Valley record is one of the projects my team is most proud of,” says Mosley. “I’m blown away at the high bar the whole creative team is setting for this band. The songs are all amazing, and the sound is fresh as ever. Moments border on old-school bluegrass, while others toe the line of straight-up pop. The talent is there in bucketloads.”
“People think our music is either really progressive, or really old-school. Our favorite thing is when they think it is both,” says Brad. “We are really old-school and our producer is really progressive, so it’s like a tug of war where we come at him with banjos, dobros, and mandolins and he comes at us with some new idea that we never thought of and it meshes.”
“We are not embarrassed by any of our other three records,” says Brad. “That was the evolution and I’m glad it had to happen, but I think we’ve reached a place where if people hear High Valley on the radio, they know for sure it is us. From the very first strumming pattern, it feels like how I would play ‘I’ll Fly Away’ or any gospel hymn we grew up with, but we are playing our own song. ‘Make You Mine’ sounds like the song we were born to record.”
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