Since forming in 2006, The High 48s have been making waves in the Minnesota bluegrass scene with their unique riffs and modern spin on the timeless bluegrass genre. Their music is a combination of a lively, contemporary attitude with a soulful, classical twang that pays homage to the original roots of bluegrass. Their distinctive sound has earned them well deserved national recognition by the RockyGrass Band Competition in 2008, as well as various collaborative performances with some of the greatest artists in bluegrass, including Grammy-nominees Special Consensus and traditional bluegrass legend James King. Now, after almost a decade of honing in on their craft, the High 48s are set to release their new album Daddy Was a Bankrobber this year on Friday, June 16th at the Cedar with opener Mother Banjo Band.
We spoke with fiddle player Eric Christopher, mandolin player Mike Hedding, and banjo player Anthony Ihrig of The High 48s prior to the show to discuss their development as a band, the evolution of the Minnesota bluegrass scene, and some of their inspirations; tickets are still available here.
Q: You have had over a decade of experience creating soulful bluegrass music with your own unique modern feel. How have you seen the local bluegrass scene evolve since you began in 2006?
A (Mike Hedding): The tent of what’s being called “bluegrass” these days has definitely expanded since we started playing. The barriers between bluegrass, americana, old-time are slowly wearing down as more and more bands add their unique take on the traditions. The public also seems to be more responsive to bluegrass these days. Back when I started playing, most people up here had never even heard of bluegrass, let alone had a favorite band or had attended a show. Now there’s bluegrass music being played at most of the biggest venues in town.
(Anthony Ihrig): To follow up on Mike’s last point, I think it’s been great to watch the local bluegrass infrastructure evolve along with the attitudes and tastes of the next generation bands and fans. The Cedar taking out seats for standing/dancing shows; Prairie Home Companion hiring Chris Thile; the rise of the brewpub/taproom venue, hearing bluegrass/Americana music on FM in primetime hours on The Current, Pert Near’s Winter Stringband Weekend and Blue Ox Festival etc.– these are all things I wouldn’t have anticipated when I started playing around town in 2000 and yet are critical to the music’s evolution and survival.
Q: Bluegrass has a long history in Minnesota and the surrounding regions. Being born and raised in the Upper Midwest, what about your upbringing influenced your music the most?
A (Anthony Ihrig): The biggest influence growing-up here has had on my songwriting has been a better understanding who/what I am not. I grew-up in St. Paul playing drums in rock and jazz bands– I’ve never tasted moonshine, been in a coal mine or even seen a “dark hollow” and I would never want to pretend that I did! What is great about bluegrass though, is that it’s about real life. I can write about my grandfather’s struggles working on the Great Northern Railway, about coming of age on the banks of the Mississippi, etc.. and still maintain a traditional perspective/voice. My local folk hero is Paul Westerberg. He may be a rock and roll singer to some, but I think he has written some of the best regional folk and bluegrass songs around (Skyway, Here Comes a Regular etc..).
Q: You will be celebrating the debut of your seventh eighth album, Daddy Was a Bankrobber, with a release show at The Cedar. How did the recording process for this new album differ from the past?
A (Eric Christopher): On this album we just picked and wrote songs that we liked as listeners and didn’t worry about whether they were bluegrass enough. I think we’ve always been really conscious about keeping our music rooted in traditional bluegrass. We’ve always been identified as the “traditional bluegrass band.” And that’s no accident. We wear suits and play acoustically, just like Bill Monroe did, and we play bluegrass standards in our sets. And we all go back a long ways with this music. It’s part of who we are. But it’s not all of who we are. We let those other influences come and play on this record.
For example, I’ve been playing bluegrass forever, but I also grew up listening to punk. The Clash song “Bankrobber” has been with me since I was kid. I’ve been listening to it and playing it in other bands since I was in my teens. I had a dream a few months before we started recording that I heard the Carter Family playing it. So I arranged the song with Carter-style guitar part and brought it to the band. It’s the first cut on the album, and I think it sets the tone.
(Mike Hedding): I feel like we did a lot less tinkering with this album. Most of the songs were pretty road tested and we just went in and cut them. I’ve done other projects were the studio album and live show end up being very different. This album seems very representative of our live show which I think is where the band is at its best.
Q: As a band of songwriters, you’ve written a distinctive mix of original songs as well as putting your own spin on some bluegrass fan favorites. What kinds of things can we expect during your upcoming performance?
A (Anthony Ihrig): Like the new album, you can expect a broad range of bluegrass, country and Americana music. We’ve got some brand new original songs we’re excited to debut and some fresh arrangements on old favorites as well. And, of course, it wouldn’t be a bluegrass show without some jamming and let’s just say The Mother Banjo Band knows how to jam 🙂
Q: Who do you think is the most underrated artist in the Minnesota bluegrass scene?
A (Mike Hedding): I’m a big fan of a local guy Adam Kiesling. He’s played with many groups around town including Pert Near Sandstone and now Corpse Reviver. He’s a phenomenal guitar/banjo/bass player and he does a great job carrying on the tradition in town.
(Anthony Ihrig): While not strictly bluegrass, I think Becky Schlegel is one of the best bluegrass songwriters around. She is by no means an unknown around here, she was featured on Prairie Home Companion multiple times during Garrison’s tenure. However, she moved to Nashville for some years (where she wrote songs with some of the best) and is now back, living in the Rochester area. The High 48s have recorded her music on multiple albums and we’re huge fans. She’s the real deal folks!
Q: What’s inspiring you lately?
A (Eric Christopher): I recently saw the jazz singer and pianist Bob Dorough playing a gig in a small club. It was just him, a bassist and a drummer, and it was totally electrifying. Here was this guy, 93 years old (he sang with Miles Davis…in the early 60s!) and he put on one of the best shows I’ve ever seen. Not just a great show for a 93 year-old, but a great show, full stop.
It was a reminder to me that real artistry doesn’t have an expiration date. You can keep growing and developing and deepening as an artist as you get older.
(Anthony Ihrig): I’m a big fan of Sarah Jarosz and everything she has put out since her debut record in 2009. She continues to innovate and inspire and deserved her Grammy win this year.