Having just been introduced to the concept of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s “Definitive 200” shopping list, I could easily write an industrial-grade diatribe against the stupidity and arrogance of such lists. But in the end such lists, crack for the VH1-generation, are really just mix tapes and greatest hits compilations writ obscenely large and commercially pervasive. And since mix tapes and best-of records are only as good as the chosen material and the vision of the compiler, it stands to reason that while most are unnecessary, some are actually worthwhile. The experience of a good retrospective is like raiding an older sibling’s record collection as a kid, one of the most time-honored entry points for discovering new old music.
Sugar Hill Records does a fine job of playing older bro or sis with three of its artists on its Americana Master Series: Best of the Sugar Hill Years. While offering little new to the already fans, the comps are nevertheless thoughtfully produced, modestly packaged, and the artists they chronicle (Guy Clark, James McMurtry, and Jerry Douglas) are extremely worthy. Each artist is a prime candidate for this kind of treatment, particularly because their deep catalogs have long commanded the respect of their peers and pupils, mainstream recognition has generally remained elusive. There are lots of potential new converts out there that can use the Americana Master Series as a guided tour into Clark’s craft and wisdom, McMurtry’s piss and vinegar, and Douglas’s dexterity and lyricism.
The notes for each disc reveal that, “tracks were culled from radio chart toppers, fan mail, downloads, and songs and tunes that are recurrent favorites at live performances.” True, because these comps are limited to each artist’s output on Sugar Hill Records alone, the scope of each record is minimal compared to entire careers, but it’s still nice to know the selection process went further than throwing darts. Plus, the smaller window also means greater consistency over the course of a single disc. Taking what are arguably are the best tracks from no more than five albums recorded within a fairly short period of time is a good way to trim the fat and create one really, really good record. Just think what could have been had R.E.M. stuck together the three or four worthy songs from each of its last three albums, and you’ll have some idea of what I’m getting at.
Of the three artists, James McMurtry is the youngest, his catalog running back to 1989’s Too Long in the Wasteland. His tenure on Sugar Hill spanned just three records: It Had to Happen (1997), Walk Between the Raindrops (1998), and Saint Mary of the Woods (2002). The son of famous film writer/producer Larry McMurtry (The Last Picture Show, Brokeback Mountain), McMurtry’s been called “the truest, fiercest songwriter of his generation” by none other than Stephen King. But literary blood and acclaim thankfully don’t make for refined, genteel discourse in the music; McMurtry pulls no punches in his gritty country-rock, full of pointed social criticism and dirt-real characters. At first listen, much of the tunes collected here sound like descendents of Dire Straits’ “Money For Nothing” or Robert Palmer’s “Addicted to Love”, for McMurtry’s dry sing-speak delivery and rhythmic blues guitar of “Sixty Acres” and the slow grind of “Lobo Town”. But McMurtry’s own Texas blend of country, rock, and blues is the real everyday roadhouse stew other artists tend to order take-out. “Sixty Acres” for example, does more in its three minute assessment of inherited property than a semester’s worth of research on the rise and appeal of big-box retailers. And “12 O’Clock Whistle” is a nostalgic account of childhood time spent with grandparents that deftly avoids cheap sentimentality in its language or detail.
Jerry Douglas, perhaps best known currently for his work in Alison Krauss’s backup band, Union Station, is widely regarded as the hands-down best Dobro player in the contemporary country world. In addition to sharing his talents with a vast array of performers from Dolly Parton and Emmylou Harris to Bela Fleck and Bill Frisell, Douglas has his own solo catalog of records dating back to 1979’s Fluxology. For the Americana Master Series, Douglas’s five Sugar Hill records have been combed through in the same manner as McMurtry’s. Douglas typically takes bluegrass and country forms and twists them in umpteen directions, resulting in compositions that maintain the inherent earthiness and rural flavor of those genres and transform them into something altogether new and contemporary. “Takarasaka”, for example, shivers and rumbles, displaying his instrument’s potential for color and expression beyond “twangy.” Other highlights include the ridiculously fast picking and interplay of the jazzy “Cave Bop” (with Jeff Coffin on saxophone and Viktor Krauss on bass), and the quick, playful ramble of “Monkey Let the Hogs Out”. Of course, these are highlights on an album of highlights featuring fiddle tunes, murder ballads (a brisk “Hey Joe”), and seamless amalgams of far-flung but naturally harmonious chunks of American music.
I was fortunate once to see Texas songwriter par excellence Guy Clark perform live in Chicago. Though that was my first exposure to his songs, I still vividly remember that night and the sense that I had witnessed a storyteller of the highest order. Since his first release, 1975’s Old No. 1, Clark has patiently carved out an album every three years or so from the same weathered Texas wood as Townes Van Zandt and Robert Earl Keen. His most recent three Sugar Hill albums, Keepers, Cold Dog Soup, and The Dark, provide the songs for the 15-track retrospective here. With his laid back, old man vocal style, and steady un-slick country arrangements, Clark’s songs don’t demand your attention the way more flashy or aggressive music does. Instead, you’re drawn to it instinctively, quieting down and pulling up a stool or chair to get closer to it. In that respect, what can be said about the homespun wisdom of the evocative “Mud” that the song doesn’t do a million times better? And how to explain that the lament for a dead, beloved dog (“Queenie’s Song”) is more than its butt-of-country-music-joke subject matter is more affecting than it, sniff, has any right, sniff, to be? As with Douglas and McMurtry, if you’re unfamiliar with Guy Clark, curiosity will reward you. The Americana Master Series makes it easy to test the waters, knowing damn well you’re liable then to jump right in.