One of the best unintended consequences of the mainstreaming of “alternative” has been the steady destruction of narrow niche listening. When I was in high school, people branded their outsider status with a heavily policed and stratified system of “scenes”. I was a bit of a half-breed, having started off in hip hop and melded into shoegazing bands once Melody Maker became something of a Senior-year Bible. Now it seems that indie rockers are probably likely to dig back into the influences of their current favorites, branch out into genres once thought aesthetically incompatible and even, with or without irony, embrace the most calculated pop trash that would have once been the untouchable category in the musical caste system.
But the creation of an omnivorous culture of hip is only one of the great reasons that Willie Hightower could be successfully dug from archival obscurity. The marketability of alternative music has had the retroactive effect of undermining the logic of the old rock canon. People no longer assume that mass consumption mixed with critical acclaim actually insures the preservation of the best artists for future generations. With the complex maze of the market, the mechanics of record making, the luck of the draw, and the compatibility of cultural zeitgeist and artistic vision, it’s nearly impossible to catalogue the factors that go into volatile mix that creates artistic longevity. With anointing process eroded, the past few years has seen a steady influx of archeological frenzies with bands like Gang of Four experiencing revivals by Rapture-proxy and artists like Vashti Bunyan gaining stature from musicians adopting a role as nudging tastemakers, making arguments for critical reconsideration that develop a life and momentum all their own. Labels like the Numero Group have made it their mission to comb dusty record racks, stumbling over lost gems, some wonderful, some charmingly bad, but all slipped into the mute margins of music history.
I adore this contrarian fanaticism, which demystifies the power of cultural critics while simultaneously encouraging music as a vast, lifetime passion of limitless exploration. Hightower’s story seems to be one of “wrong song, wrong time” as his brand of gospel-infused soul, despite a few charting singles, gave way to other ’70s styles, creating the misfortune of premature commercial obsolescence. The liner notes point out that Hightower’s label, Mercury, dropped both him and Clarence Carter, deciding to focus instead on other acts like the Osmonds. Surely, that particular record executive went on to be devoured by shrieking creatures in the dead of night. Well, that’s how my bedtime story version would end.
Thanks to Astralwerks, we have a compilation of pure listening ease, from start to finish the sort of record that carves a deeply emotional space in your soul. I love music that engenders this sort of artificial and deeply potent feeling of nostalgia. Artificial only in the sense that I don’t know exactly what I feel is gone when I listen to Hightower except perhaps an era of music making when the personal, political, and artistic were thought to be truly transformative. Simple sentiments get expressed with such bracing sincerity, it’s disarming. Hightower believes in the power of the tradition he’s working in, a fact beared out by his insistence that each and every song be given every last ounce of its poignant weight.
Hightower has all the vocal velvet of the greats: Sam Cooke, Otis Redding, Little Willie John. The Joe South cover, “Walk a Mile in My Shoes”, blends boogie and gospel in that preach-it-home way that the Staple Singers make you choke up and nod along powerfully to what, in any other context, would be pure cliché. It’s not just the way it soars into a barely scratched howl, but the way that the music adds a wealth of emotional details: the horn section in the chorus sounds like choir claps, the drum beat is straight uplift, and the violins rain sprinkled in give the song this imploring and begging quality that completely and empathetically embraces your ear. Hightower’s versatility allows him to color the songs with this level of detail as he slips effortlessly from crooning, to howling, to simply walking his voice in a campfire break to tell an incredibly powerful story to a child about his cowardly father in “Back Road into Town”.
It’s possible that Hightower simply wasn’t able to put out enough “hooks” to keep himself in heavy rotation, though “Walk a Mile in My Shoes” has had me singing to myself every time in the past few weeks when I have found myself alone and joyful. The way he likes to hanglide on the down notes makes his finest moments the ballads like “I Can’t Love Without You” and “It’s a Miracle” where his voice, choked up and soft, trails off deep into the song almost melting into the grooves. The Sam Cooke comparison seems the tightest for many reasons, in part because they both clearly consider the flow of gospel and R&B two halves of the same praying hands. But Hightower has the slightest sandpaper lining at the far edge of his voice, a sweet abrasion that strokes an s-trailed finger down the back of your neck. His originals, like “You Used Me”, show clearly that his originality extends beyond his ability to line other people’s songs with complicated pockets of meaning. It’s angry, it’s “I’m cool with it now”, it’s “thanks for the good times”, and it’s “I still kinda wanna cut ya” all swimming in the same sea of lullaby rhythm.
If a voice this beautiful and inspirational can get lost in the fray of record deals, elevated artists, and vaunted trash fads, I can’t help but get excited about what else might be out there, sitting in some garage sale or gathering dust in some label’s basement. Music nerds can be truly honorable bloodhounds and, on this record in particular, I’m eternally grateful they exist.