various artists,
HighTone Records Anthology: Rockin' from the Roots
(Time-Life, 2007)

Founded as a blues imprint in 1983 by Bruce Bromberg and Larry Sloven, HighTone has been among the finest -- and also among the most puzzlingly under-celebrated -- labels of the roots-music revival. (Compare its understated reputation to the overhyped ones of certain competitors, which for reasons of sheer self-interest I shall let pass nameless.) Actually, HighTone played no small role in setting that revival in motion, releasing albums of "Americana" and "" before anybody realized that a genre was emerging and wanted a name.

Time-Life's HighTone Records Anthology, comprising two discs and 30 selections culled from the label's 300-plus releases, is not to be confused with the box-set American Music: The HighTone Records Story, four CDs and one DVD, which HighTone itself issued last year. I haven't heard the latter (my effort to secure a review copy was, alas, to no avail), but a check of its contents uncovers surprisingly little overlap. Or maybe "surprisingly" overstates the case; anyone seeking to compile a collection out of the treasure trove that is HighTone's catalogue has a whole lot to choose from.

The first cut on the first disc, "Phone Booth," comes from HighTone's initial release, Bad Influence, by then-obscure young Bay Area blues/r&b singer/guitarist Robert Cray, who on other labels would go on to achieve what passes for stardom in the blues realm with his distinctly glossy, modernist approach. Another of the three African-American blues musicians (the third is Joe Louis Walker) represented here is Otis Rush, not because HighTone got him into the studio but because it had the wisdom to reissue his obscure 1971 Right Place, Wrong Time, one of those moments when that notoriously mercurial performer was captured in top form.

Mostly, this anthology highlights various roots-rock, country and folk musicians at particularly felicitous moments, for example Johnny Rodriguez in a riveting reading of Robert Earl Keen's "Corpus Christi Bay," which in a just world would be known and loved by anybody with ears. I was startled to learn just how many of the albums from which the songs are selected have long been resident in my own collection: releases by the late Gary Stewart, Hank Thompson, Dave Alvin, the Blasters, Tom Russell, Geoff Muldaur, Ramblin' Jack Elliott and Buddy and Julie Miller separately and together. I can't quarrel with any of the choices, which -- made from uniformly strong recordings -- could not have been instantly obvious ones. I guess I would have picked Thompson's wonderful Western-swing arrangement of the turn-of-the-last-century folk ballad "Wreck of the Old 97" over his version of "In the Jailhouse Now," but that is the pickiest of nits.

I'm glad to make the acquaintance of the above-cited blues tunes and, really, everything else heretofore unheard by me. Twenty-nine songs and one instrumental (surf-guitar king Dick Dale's thundering "Ghost Riders in the Sky") count here for an embarrassment of riches. First-class artists, superior material, sharp-edged production -- well, you'd have to work at it to get the results wrong. This anthology, which doesn't work at it, just lets it happen, and that's more than enough.

review by
Jerome Clark

19 May 2007

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