How High Valley found music success by not trying to fit in with Nashville

CBS News

One of Nashville’s newest duos took an unlikely route to the country music capital. 

Brad and Curtis Rempel make up the band High Valley. The brothers grew up in a Mennonite community in a remote area of Alberta, Canada, and it’s as isolated as you can get – eight hours from the nearest major airport and a five-hour drive just to get to the closest McDonald’s. 

With just a few records for inspiration, the Rempels made their own entertainment, and that meant making music as a family, reports CBS News correspondent Jan Crawford.

Their music is an old school sound with a modern edge.

“You listen to a lot of country songs on the radio and a lot of people sound a lot more country than us,” Brad said. “Like bonfires and girls with cut-off jeans.”

“That’s not your country,” Crawford said.

“That’s not our country at all,” Brad said, laughing.  

Their country is far northern Alberta, where they were raised like everyone else in their remote farming community, working the land and singing in the Mennonite church — a sect of Christianity whose more conservative members separate themselves from modern society.

“Our mom and dad came from the old school Mennonite, riding horse and buggy,” Curtis said. “No electricity.”

The kids had a more modern upbringing.

“We grew up with records of Ricky Skaggs and Buck Owens,” Brad said.

But they had no TV, and there was no FM radio station that even reached the area.

“We were allowed to listen to the radio. Just when we turned it on there was nothing on it,” Brad recalled, laughing.

So Brad and Curtis made their own music, developing a bluegrass sound with a twist. Their father mortgaged part of the family farm to help them record an album.

High Valley quickly developed a local following, and the brothers set their sights on Nashville — 2,000 miles and a world away.

“It wasn’t till I came to Nashville in ‘07 that I discovered how left behind we’d been,” Rempel said.

At a songwriters’ event, Brad heard Michael Jackson for the first time.

High Valley cooks up a traditional Mennonite meal

“I raised my hand like an idiot and I said, ‘Who’s that girl singing?’” Brad recalled, laughing.

“You didn’t know who Michael Jackson was?” Crawford asked.

“No. He could’ve walked onto our yard with Ricky Skaggs, you know, and we would’ve all ran to Ricky Skaggs and asked for his autograph,” Brad said.

Trying to adjust, the brothers started moving away from the music they grew up with.

“I can listen back to our music from a few years ago now and say, ‘It’s quite obvious that we were chasing what was on the radio,’” Brad said.

“Eventually, Brad and I sat down and decided, ‘Hey, let’s quit doing what other people want or what we think other people want and just, let’s just make music that we love,’” Curtis said.

“And what we grew up on,” Brad added.

“And be yourself,” Crawford said.

“Yeah,” Curtis said.

To remember where they came from, Brad bought an old farmhouse 30 minutes outside of Nashville. And they started writing and playing music in a setting more like home, finding inspiration in a gospel standard they’d been singing since they were kids.

“How do you write a song today that is that simple and not…” Brad said. “Today’s version of ‘I’ll Fly Away,’” Curtis interrupted.

“And we started writing, ‘Make You Mine,’” Brad said.

“I remember the first time we played it, it was like, ‘This is easy. This just feels normal,” Curis said.

“Because it was real,” Crawford said.

“It felt like home,” Brad said.

“And when our fans heard it, I mean, they reacted immediately. They loved the song,” Curtis said.

“I wish we would’ve done it sooner,” Brad said.

“Yeah,” Curtis agreed. “We should keep doing this.”

The song was a hit and High Valley is on the rise. They’ve played at the Grand Ole Opry, joined by their idol, Ricky Skaggs.

They’ve made Nashville home by keeping traditions alive – getting together for dinner whenever they’re not touring, complete with traditional Mennonite recipes  and the same emphasis on faith and family they grew up on.

“There’s a song on the record called ‘Don’t Stop,’” Brad said. “It’s like: ‘When holding onto heaven is all you’ve got, whatever you do, don’t stop.’ It’s what I want my kids to see – stay true to yourself and what you want to do in this life. But also chase it as hard as you can.”

The brothers said that their family members back home – especially their mom and sisters – are always watching to make sure they don’t get too far from how they were raised.

But with their first U.S. single climbing the country music charts, it looks like sticking to the music they grew up with is also a formula for success.