High Water Records was founded in 1980 by Dean Richard Ranta and Dr. David Evans, an eminent folklorist who was brought to what was then Memphis State University in 1978 to head up a graduate degree program in Musicology (Regional Studies). At that time, it was quite unusual for colleges to have their own record labels, and High Water received a fair amount of notice. Conceived as a way to connect the recording studio curriculum with the ethnomusicology program, High Water involved both professionals and students, both in the recording and production process, and in the field research and artist and repertoire process. Intended to record practitioners of the traditional music of the South, High Water Records managed to record artists who later became immensely famous, including Junior Kimbrough, R. L. Burnside and Jessie Mae Hemphill. In 1989 High Water expanded its range of coverage internationally, as Dr. Evans made field recordings in Venezuela and later in Ethiopia and Malaŵi. The label and its catalog still exist, providing opportunities for University of Memphis music business students to learn the day to day operations of a record label.
The Blues at Nightfall exhibit in honor of High Water Records opened on April 1, 2023, with an elegant reception attended by about a hundred people, including Kip Lornell and photographer/researcher Dr. Cheryl Thurber. Dr. David Evans, the label’s founder was honored with a special festschrift edition of the Tennessee Folklife Quarterly. Also opening was Bill Ellis’ blues art exhibit A Heaven of Our Own which complemented the label exhibit perfectly, and which included works by Frank D. Robinson and George Hunt. The exhibits continue through June 24.