How in the world do a couple of Mennonite farm boys from the far reaches of northern Alberta find themselves in Nashville en route to country music stardom?
It’s a question Brad and Curtis Rempel often ask themselves.
With talent, determination and divine intervention, you could say.
The brothers, who perform as High Valley, are riding high these days. Their fourth album, “County Line,” is a Top 10 seller in Canada and a Canadian Country Music Association album-of-the-year nominee, among other honours. And they’ve been on the road from California to P.E.I., with a recent stop at Red Deer’s Westerner Days.
They also took their full band, big show, and a CMT TV documentary crew back to where it all got started — in La Crete, 500 kilometres north of Grand Prairie.
“It was pretty special,” said Curtis. “We’ve been bragging about how unique and different our town is since we hit the road. Now we get to share our hometown with the world.”
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The concert was a fundraiser for the local rodeo grounds and the La Crete Ferry Campground.
“The documentary is about how unlikely it is to do country music for a living, how unlikely it is to be from an ‘across the ice bridge’ Mennonite farming town in northern Alberta, and then how ridiculously unlikely it is to bridge the gap between those two worlds,” added older brother Brad.
The boys, from a musical family of six, grew up singing harmony in church and along with brother Bryan (who wearied of the road and returned to La Crete) began performing as a country gospel group before they were teenagers.
When not making music, they were busy working on the family’s 1,400-acre farm, and helping their father who was the local dealer for Twister bins and Keho grain dryers.
“We built a lot of wooden floors for grain bins,” recalled Curtis.
“Drinking lukewarm Pepsi out of a can with a farmer’s sausage sandwich was pretty good too, on the combine,” added Brad.
In those days, the combines were 1981 and 1982 1460 Internationals.
“Neither of them had the header reverser, so we had to manually unplug the header every single time, which happened quite often,” said Curtis.
“I was too scared of Dad for it to happen ‘quite often,’” added Brad. “I think I drove probably too slow.”
“Not me, I always tried to lap Dad on the field!” replied Curtis.
Memories of farm life keep them grounded.
“The main thing I learned was how spoiled we are,” said Brad. “Any time I’m with a musician, and they’re complaining about a ‘tough day,’ I always think, ‘We’re a bunch of wusses!’
“A rough day for us is if our sound check goes too long, or there’s a problem with our monitors. It is so easy. I try hard to remember how normal it would’ve been for us to be farmers, working with our hands.”
Curtis still has ties to the land.
“I bought 300 acres from my dad and farmed it for a few years. That was before I decided to move to Nashville. I still have the farmland, but I’m renting it out to my cousin, who just loves farming more than anything in the world. I’m really happy to see him working the land.”
Brad stayed true to his roots by buying six acres of land and an old farmhouse in Columbia, Tennessee, where he can still do some regular hands-on labour.
“Our dad could always fix anything. He still says the word ‘hire’ as if it’s a swear word,” said Brad.
“That was the thing he taught us, just by example,” added Curtis. “If you can do something yourself, then do it. If you can’t, then learn by trial and error.”
That’s been a valuable asset in their approach to music.
“We recorded “County Line” with no help from a record label. Curtis and I saved up the money and paid for the record ourselves. We had no manager. That’s all stuff that we learned from wanting to do it ourselves.”
Connecting with the fans has become a trademark for High Valley. The duo has a large online presence, and they do things like fly fan club members down to get the Nashville experience, High Valley style. They even sent demos to fans to help them select the songs that made it to “County Line.”
“We used to record songs and hope our fans loved them,” said Brad. “Now we found out which songs our fans loved, and recorded them. We’ve never heard of anyone else actually doing it that way.”
Their up-tempo, toe-tapping music has been dubbed ‘pop grass’ — a mix of pop and bluegrass. The authenticity of their songs — many of them co-written by Brad, who works with some of Nashville’s biggest songwriters — also rings true with fans.
“Faith, family, and farming. Those have always been the three things we’ve sung about,” said Brad, adding they limit touring to spend time with their young families.
“No matter how our style changes, as long as we keep that at the root of it, our fans seem to be evolving with us, as musical styles are always evolving. I feel like what we sing about remains true and steady through the 18 years we’ve been doing this.
“We’re very proud of the farm and where we come from.”