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Americana for the people: Cray, Sloan part of HighTone's history

The Americana label is bandied about rather loosely these days, being used to describe everything from roots-rock wannabes to alt-country crooners.

By Lee Zimmerman

The Americana label is bandied about rather loosely these days, being used to describe everything from roots rock wannabes to alt country crooners. However no record company truly epitomizes the essence of that elusive tag more than HighTone, whose simple slogan, “American Music,” neatly sums up the one single element that defines their distinctive artist roster.

The diversity of music found within that realm reflects the passion of its founders, Bruce Bromberg and Larry Sloven, two music business veterans whose initial bond was formed when they discovered they had a mutual admiration for country music icon Merle Haggard. Bromberg, a producer, songwriter and sales rep for the now-defunct Tomato Records, first met Sloven in the late ‘70s when the latter was working for Pacific Record and Tape, Tomato’s West Coast distributor. However, it wasn’t until 1983 when the two opted to join forces.

Bromberg had been an enthusiastic champion of Cray’s Tomato debut, Who’s Been Talkin’, which had generated a critical buzz with radio and retail. Unfortunately, the prospects for Cray’s sophomore set were considerably diminished when Tomato announced its pending demise. Desperate to find a new outlet for the follow-up, Bromberg turned to Sloven, who, in turn, offered $25,000 and the suggestion that they create a record label to provide its release. A distribution arrangement was inked with Polygram and the new imprint — Mercury/HighTone — debuted with Robert Cray’s second album Don't Be Afraid Of The Dark.

In the beginning, with only one album to launch the label, HighTone was slow getting started. Consequently, Bromberg was forced to take a job at his father’s insurance company in order to maintain an income. Sloven kept his position at an Oakland California record distributor, promoting HighTone product clandestinely before going to work and while on his lunch hour, making calls on a pay phone.

They eventually hired a marketing company to help them find new distribution, and then turned to independent promotion people to pitch their product to radio. In time, Don’t Be Afraid Of The Dark garnered gold sales status. Three years later HighTone/Mercury birthed another Cray offering, Strong Persuader — a multiplatinum smash that gave the fledgling label its first, and to date greatest, across-the–board hit.

With the success of the two Cray albums under their belt, Bromberg and Sloven quit their day jobs and opened their own office in Oakland. Within a few years, they weaned HighTone away from Polygram, expanded their repertoire and diversified the sound to encompass not only blues, but also rock, folk, country, Latino and reggae. The label made early inroads into the then-burgeoning Austin, Texas, music scene, winning critical kudos for early albums by Joe Ely, Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Dale Watson and the Hot Club of Cowtown before branching out into the up-and-coming west coast roots rock market via releases of music from Dave Alvin, the Blasters and their critically-acclaimed Merle Haggard tribute album, Tulare Dust.

HighTone also made a firm imprint in the traditional country realm, adding such stellar names as Gary Stewart, Johnny Rodriguez, Hank Thompson and Buddy Miller to their rapidly growing roster.

From the beginning, HighTone’s music was driven more by the owners’ preferences and enthusiasm than any deliberate attempt to stake out a specific niche.

“I don't think we ever thought of it as anything other than singer-songwriters,” Bromberg recalls. “We started as a blues label, which is what I did before HighTone. My taste was country and blues. We became involved with many singer-songwriters… I was closer to the blues people than the folksingers, with exception of the Austin acts, many of whom I worked with… I was way into Joe Ely; he produced his own albums and the first Gilmore for us. I worked with the harder country people such as Heather Myles, Dale Watson, Ted Roddy, Lonesome Strangers, and Dallas Wayne.”

HighTone’s growth throughout the late '80s and early '90s neatly coincided with the growing popularity of what had come to be called Americana, a synthesis of no-frills rock ‘n’ roll, traditional folk and classic country. Yet Bromberg insists that the style has never been defined definitively, a fact that’s blurred any attempt to categorize HighTone as a whole.

“As far as Americana is concerned, it's just a catchall term for roots music,” he contends. “Our Tulare Dust album was the first number one on the Americana chart, however there is no Americana chart in Billboard. It was more a radio format thing, so therefore not as meaningful as if it were in Billboard. The stuff winds up in country sections or folk.”

In an attempt to bring further attention to these various genres, the label launched a number of specialty package tours that grouped together like-minded artists from the HighTone stable. Variously known as the Roadhouse Revival Tour, the Monsters of Folk tour, the Twangbangers Tour and the Big Noise From Springfield Tour, these outings helped turn the spotlight on the company’s diverse musical offerings.

Over the years, HighTone’s extra emphasis on developing singer/songwriters gave a critical boost to the careers of artists such as Tom Russell, Chris Smither and Buddy and Julie Miller. Last year also saw the return of the legendary PF Sloan, whose HighTone album Sailover marked his first U.S. offering in nearly 35 years.

“Our criteria used to be to sign artists we really liked, but now we have to look at what they have going on,” Bromberg says. “Whatever success we had was due to the fact we chose artists we thought had something different, or who were very good singers and musicians.”

Despite its nearly 25-year legacy as America’s definitive roots outlet, Bromberg says that today’s marketplace presents new challenges, even for established indies.

“I think it would be very difficult to start a roots label now,” he admits. “There’s not as many clubs, and I think that as our audience ages, they don't go to the few record stores left. Amazon doesn't come close to replacing the stores… The digital era has pretty much wiped out most record stores, and the income from downloads does not come close to the income lost from store sales. Bandstand sales by artists have become more and more prevalent.”

Not surprisingly then, HighTone’s operations remain modest. The company is still based out of its original Oakland offices and employs only two full time staffers in addition to its two founding partners. Nevertheless, the label boasts a sprawling catalog. Last year, it commerated its success by compiling nearly 80 songs and 16 videos for a five-disc CD/DVD box set aptly dubbed American Music: The HighTone Records Story.

Along with contributions from every artist that’s been a part of its roster, it includes a booklet filled with reflections, observations and anecdotes from Bromberg, Sloven and many of those same musicians that played such important roles in the company’s evolution. Dave Alvin’s comments seem to echo an overall feeling of gratitude and admiration that’s felt for the label and its founders.

“HighTone gave me the unique opportunity to grow as an artist that few, if any labels would have,” he writes. “For that I am eternally grateful to Bruce Bromberg and Larry Sloven. If it hadn’t been for them I never would have found my voice as a singer-songwriter and I’d probably either be flipping burgers right now or something far, far worse. No artist can ask for more.”