A&M; Records Opens Arms to New Americana Series
The notion of American musical heritage used to conjure images of old codgers in coveralls straight from the Appalachians, monitored by troops of earnest musical preservationists.
Not to Steve Ralbovsky.
The 31-year-old A&M; Records senior vice president of artists & repertoire is intent on sharing his belief that American music is a rich and varied living process, more vital and current today than ever.
To that end, Ralbovsky this month is launching the Americana series, a label within A&M; designed to boost contemporary artists working with traditional forms. The inaugural Americana release will be “Homeland,” the debut by Tish Hinojosa, a singer from San Marcos, Tex. Hinojosa writes about a cultural experience Ralbovsky believes is the essential shared element of all American culture and its musical forms.
“Tish embodies a certain Southwestern experience that speaks to the immigrant,” Ralbovsky said recently in his spare, airy office at A&M;'s Hollywood headquarters.
“She’s one of 13 children who crossed the border from Mexico. Her song ‘West Side of Town’ is about the west side across the border at El Paso, but it relates to the west side of San Antonio or the west side of the San Fernando Valley.”
Next in the series will be an album by David Wilcox, an Asheville, N.C., singer-songwriter who was brought to Ralbovsky’s attention by one of his network of “unofficial” talent scouts around the country. The third Americana release will be the major-label debut of Zachary Richard, a young Cajun star who has also been a crusader for the preservation of Cajun culture.
“We want to make records with young progenitors, new artists who are returning to the native forms, but somehow contemporize them with new songs or performing abilities,” Ralbovsky said.
“Partly it was inspired by the annual New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, which has become a mecca for people with an interest in the essence of the music. And I’ve also seen an influence on the mainstream from ethnic American music like blues, folk and gospel.”
In just one year at A&M;, after a two-year stint as A&R; director at Columbia Records in New York, Ralbovsky established his leanings. He was behind the label’s signing of the Neville Brothers, who are New Orleans R&B; kings, and a series of anthologies recorded at the Knitting Factory, New York’s downtown avant-garde club (the first volume has just been released).
He also worked closely on such projects as John Hiatt’s “Slow Turning,” and producer Hal Willner’s lauded “Stay Awake” collection of unusual interpretations of Disney movie songs. He has been instrumental in re-releasing titles from the A&M; jazz catalogue and the establishment of a Jazz Masters series, which debuted recently with new albums by veteran jazz innovators Don Cherry and Sun Ra.
Still, Ralbovsky felt a need to establish a special series. In forming the structure of the project, Ralbovsky took clues from small, independent, folk-oriented labels such as Rounder in the use of his informal network of scouts, small-budget recordings and alternative promotion avenues, such as National Public Radio.
“These records will take 10% to 20% of the usual pop recording budget,” he said. “They all can be profitable at very low sales numbers.”
But the key to Americana’s prospects, Ralbovsky says, is to emphasize individual quality and avoid formula.
“I didn’t want a Chinese menu approach,” he said. “I could have gone to New Orleans and signed 15 artists--one gospel, one folk, one blues. . . .”
Instead of focusing on styles, Ralbovsky is searching for individual talents.
“If you look at Robert Cray and Los Lobos and even Suzanne Vega, the early records were low-budget and somewhat ethnic, but through good songs they connected with an audience.”