Written by Fantasma el Rey
Founded in 1983 by record industry men Larry Sloven and Bruce Bromberg to put out music that they “thought was good,” HighTone Records was envisioned as a reissue label. Luckily, it has also become home to many new artists, covering all fields of American roots music, from the blues of Robert Cray to the country/folk of Ramblin’ Jack Elliott. Every major artist on the label is heard from once, more if they happen to appear in a duet, a former band, or side project. All 30 songs have a coinciding paragraph in the liner notes that mentions such things as how and why it came to be part of the HighTone library; however, these tracks speak for themselves.
The 15 cuts on disc one contain blues sides and rockabilly/rock ‘n’ roll tunes. Chicago blues can be heard on Otis Rush’s “Three Times A Fool” while Chris Smither represents the Mississippi delta on Can't Shake These Blues. San Francisco’s Joe Louis Walker’s “747” has a solid blues shuffle that keeps you movin’ and groovin’.
L.A.’s The Blasters keep the rockabilly fires burning with their high energy rocker “Marie, Marie” taken from their first album American Music. The Alvin Brothers, Dave (guitar) and Phil (vocals), drive this Downey-based band in a direction that keeps their sound gritty and hardcore rockabilly/blues. Dave Alvin pops up once more with the track “Abilene,” off of his solo album, Blackjack David. On his own Dave travels down a country road lined with traditional sights and frights; this tune about life’s darker moments is carried well by Dave’s calm baritone voice.
The true gem on disc one has to be Dick Dale’s lightning fast, surf-instrumental version of the cowboy spook tale “Ghostriders In The Sky.” This one opens a bit slow but quickly launches you skyward on a roller coaster ride of a remake. Another name from days past brought back into the spotlight by this label is P.F. Sloan, known in the ‘60s for the protest song “Eve Of Destruction” and the cool as ice “Secret Agent Man.” Sloan is represented here by his 2006 release “Soul Of A Women.”
Two more strong voices on this disc are Texas country rocker Joe Ely and Julie Miller. Ely’s high-energy voice, driven and inspired by his love for good ol’ rock ‘n’ roll, pushes 1987’s “Settle For Love” forward. His is the voice that most of the current alt-country kiddies want to be like and fall short of. On the other hand, Julie Miller’s voice is nasally, at times a bit flat, yet sweet. I’m drawn to its honesty. Her “Out in The Rain” is a song with a solid country rhythm section and guitar picking. I do believe that her husband Buddy provides background duties.
Disc two is stacked and packed with country tunes from start to finish. As a gentleman should, I’ll start with the ladies. The Rockabilly Philly, Rosie Flores, clocks in with her jumpy, upbeat “Blue Highway,” a tune that finds her in a more contemporary mood. Guitars still fly and drums still crash around her peppy vocals but with a sound that reflects more Roseanne Cash or Lorrie Morgan. Heather Myles is another vocalist that got lost in the shuffle; her strong vocals shine as the pedal steel guitar whines behind her on the slow, cowboy lament “Rum & Rodeo.”
Keeping western swing alive is Hot Club Of Cowtown’s “You Took Advantage Of Me” featuring Elana Fremerman on lead vocals and giving their sound a ‘40s jazz appeal. Well hell, western swing is known as cowboy jazz after all, so that shouldn’t be too much of a stretch. What Hot Club does do well is blend Django Reinhardt with Bob Wills to create a style all their own.
This disc also has its share of classic artists in the likes of Hank Thompson, Red Volkaert, and Ramblin’ Jack Elliott. Thompson plays his hand on the jump country standard “In The Jail House Now” and sounds in fine shape for a gentleman of 74 years of age. Volkaert chips in with his big voice on Wynn Stewart’s “Big, Big Love.” He is one heck of guitar player and is former lead guitarist for Merle Haggard’s Strangers. His guitar work here is in the vein of Dave Dudley trucker songs. Elliot makes an appearance with his pal and fellow “Friend Of The Devil” Bob Weir, who made his name with some rock outfit that apparently did the original version. I’ll check with Fumo Verde on that rumor.
The singer-songwriter front is where we find many of HighTone’s hidden gems that deserve to be mentioned. Names such as Buddy Miller with his wonderful bluegrass vocals on “Does My Ring Burn Your Finger,” Tom Russell and his Tex-Mex romp “When Sinatra Played Juarez,” or Jimmie Dale Gilmore’s near yodel on his honky-tonk tune titled “That Hardwood Floor.”
Three of my all-time favorite vocalist and songwriters had a place on HighTone at one time in their careers as well. Two found success in the ‘70s and the other is still playing his heart out in honky-tonks and bars across the Southwest and Europe. Johnny Rodriguez was the biggest Chicano star to hit country music in the 1970s. Still not ringing a bell? No surprise, but he’s a bad ass and his cover of “Corpus Christi Bay” finds him in top form about how the bottle can drag you down.
Gary Stewart’s drinking songs have always found a place in Fantasma’s black heart. Why you ask? Because in tunes like “She’s Actin’ Single (I’m Drinkin’ Doubles),” a kid with a broken heart (even black hearts aren’t made of stone) and a jug of Early Times Whiskey has one more friend and a song to sing away his hurt. So here is Stewart again with growl in tow on “Brand New Whiskey” and how it should be named after a woman.
Keeping with the honky-tonk theme lets swing over and visit my pal and all-time favorite real country musician, Alabama-born and Texas-bred Dale Watson. His larger-than-life, deep baritone vocals are the perfect vehicle to convey his songs of life, love, death, and pain. Watson is still turning out excellent music at the rate of about a CD a year. Now that’s a mind and heart with a lot of songs still left to be written.
The HighTone Records Anthology is packed with 30 of the best numbers the label has to offer. Thankfully, they fan the flames and keep the tradition of American roots music alive.