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Heartland -- UPI Arts & Entertainment

By
CRYSTAL CAVINESS, United Press International

NASHVILLE, Feb. 27 (UPI) -- Music lovers might like to know that 2003 has been proclaimed "Year of the Blues."

While the official proclaimer is unknown, one can only hope the designation refers to a musical style rather than an emotion.

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In keeping with the theme, at least two major cultural institutions are doing their part to focus on blues music and what it means to the American heritage.

PBS will air a documentary series on the history of blues beginning in late spring. Hightone Records, the popular Oakland, Calif., independent label, will release its own series, "Heritage of the Blues."

"Heritage of the Blues," which already has two titles on music store shelves, will feature as many as 20 CDs from blues masters, according to Bruce Bromberg, the co-owner of the label, which is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year.

Mississippi Fred McDowell's self-titled compilation is the first CD in the series, showcasing the music from a slide player many consider one of the most significant contributors to blues music. He has influenced contemporary artists from the Rolling Stones and Bonnie Raitt to John Hammond. In fact, Raitt wrote the liner notes for the CD, which was released in late January.

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"Fred McDowell was one of those amazing, elemental musicians that only come along once in a lifetime," Raitt said in the liner notes. "When he slipped that slide on and went to work, you knew you were hearing the real deal. Those down home Mississippi blues came pouring out of him, like nothing I'd ever heard before, and the steel-on-steel sounds he made on that guitar stay with me to this day."

The music of R.L. Burnside, a successful down-home Mississippi bluesman, is included. Burnside, who considered McDowell a mentor, appeared in the film "Deep Blues" and later recorded with the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion.

Hightone Records, which includes roots music, blues, country and rock artists, actually began as a blues label, Bromberg said during an interview from his home in Los Angeles.

Robert Cray and Joe Louis Walker were among the first Hightone artists. The label now includes the likes of Chris Thomas King, who played in "O, Brother Where Art Thou?," Johnny Shine, who toured with Robert Johnson and early Chicago bluesmen of the '60s, Honeyboy Edwards and Floyd Jones. Big Joe Williams' "These Are My Blues" is slated as the next offering in the "Heritage of the Blues" series.

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Bromberg is hopeful about the series' success.

"There's always a market for people who want to hear real music," he said.

As an additional incentive, Hightone has priced the CDs in the $11 to $12 range, slightly cheaper than the going rate of $15 to $17 for most of today's new releases.

"We hope this jazz razz-ma-tazz is meaningful," Bromberg said. "If we see people are buying it, we'll keep going."

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