Sugar Hill Records: 25 Years and Going Strong
Sugar Hill's early recordings possessed an aural purity that met people's hunger for authenticity and also seemed fresh and new. There was something honest about the sounds of the banjo, dobro, fiddle, and mandolin, and the way they mixed together.
When Dolly Parton decided to return to her Appalachian roots and make a bluegrass album, the country superstar went to Sugar Hill, home of some of the world's best pickers. Her choice paid off. Parton won a Grammy Award as well as a slew of critical kudos for her first Sugar Hill release (The Grass Is Blue), and Parton has continued to make several more fine records for the label. While the Tennessee Mountain girl should be applauded for her good taste, her decision wasn't all that difficult. Sugar Hill's standing as a premier bluegrass label has existed for decades. This new 4-CD anthology of material from the first 25 years, Sugar Hill Records: A Retrospective (1978-2003), shows why.
Barry Poss started Sugar Hill Records back in 1978 as an off-shoot of County Records, a label that focused on old-time music. He looked for young artists that worked in the older styles, but gave them a contemporary twist. This fit in with the zeitgeist of the times. We had our first southern President in many years, Jimmy Carter, who affected an "aw shucks" attitude and an aptitude for nuclear engineering. During this era, the nation's populace as a whole went through a resurgence of rural identities mixed with city sophistication, from the California country of the Eagles to urban cowboy fashions. Many critics have tracked this period's return to rural roots as a reaction to President Richard Nixon's fall from grace.
Sugar Hill's early recordings possessed an aural purity that met people's hunger for authenticity and also seemed fresh and new. There was something honest about the sounds of the banjo, dobro, fiddle, and mandolin, and the way they mixed together. The picking was clean and crisp. Each instrument was easily identified. Poss's ear for talent, and his trust in the musicians to get it right, established the label's success from the very beginning. Like other independent record companies from the past, such as Sun, Motown, and Atlantic, Sugar Hill was quickly associated with a certain sound and level of quality. The label featured a new crop of bluegrass artists who had roots in the original style, but played faster and more creatively than generally thought of the genre. The musicians on these original albums (such as Ricky Skaggs, Tim O'Brien, Jerry Douglas, Sam Bush, Bela Fleck, Tony Rice, Albert Lee, Emory Gordy, Mike Auldridge, Doyle Lawson, etc.) have gone on to become the biggest names in instrumental country music, virtual legends in the field, but it was Sugar Hill that offered many of them their first chance to record and be heard.
The company's first release, a record by Boone Creek, provides a good example of the Sugar Hill sound. The group, which featured (among others) Ricky Skaggs on mandolin and fiddle and Jerry Douglas on dobro, is simultaneously old-fashioned and new-fangled. The Boone Creek selection on this collection, "One Way Track", begins with the instrumentalists mimicking a steam-engine train barreling down the tracks, grounding the song in the past. But there's something strange going on. The instrumentalists clash which each other more than play together, as if there's going to be a train wreck. The lyrics are fairly conventional, and mournfully ask the train engineer to bring one's girlfriend back home. Two vocalists sing the same words at the same time, but not quite in harmony. The idea that the singers are distraught is reinforced by the way in which their voices don't mesh, and the performers seem to be on different pages, but it's clear to the listener that the concerns of the particular song aren't really as much of the attraction as the talents of the players. Boone Creek are hot stompin' pickers who smoke their solos and interchanges alike. This ain't your father's bluegrass. This is something different.
Poss gave the Boone Creek album the catalogue number of SUG-3701, because he was worried that if he listed the album as SH 001, its newness would somehow make it less appealing. But he was wrong. Boone Creek's fresh approach was what made the band special. And for some reason he put it ninth on Disc One of this anthology, after songs recorded later -- seven from the '80s and one from 1979. This fits in with the lack of logic that governs the track list order on all four discs. Poss personally selected the 81 tracks and their arrangement on the retrospective, and he offers no logical reasons for his criteria. In the liner notes, Poss admits that this is not a "best of" or "greatest hits" collection, nor is it a "hidden gems" set. He says the choices are personal, but doesn't elaborate on what makes them so. Be that as it may, one can easily see that Poss picked a variety of artists and styles to show the diversity of material the company released. He clumps the music chronologically, but is hardly picky about this. For example, Disc Two is labeled "1982-1996", although only one song comes from before 1987 and only one after 1993. To add to the confusion, some discs overlap time periods and some don't. Disc One covers 1978-1986 (four of the years on Disc Two), while Disc Three covers 1993-1998 (two of the years on Disc 2) and Disc Four covers 1998-2003. The sequencing is also perplexing. The songs are not listed chronologically, nor does there seem to be any rhyme or reason for why they are so ordered.
Many of the tracks on each of the four discs follow in the modern bluegrass style of Boone Creek. However, Sugar Hill went on to issue all types of new country music over the next 25 years. These can also be linked to trends in the larger society, but it is important to note that Sugar Hill helped lead the changes more than follow them. And Sugar Hill is a business that sometimes makes choices inspired by the economics of the times. For example, during the '80s the label put out fresh recordings by established musicians from an earlier time, such as the Osborne Brothers, Doc Watson, and the Country Gentlemen. This was a time when Hollywood was busy remaking B-movies and films based on old comics. Historians have noted this conservative trend as a way in which companies protected themselves financially from risk-taking by providing consumers with a tried and true product. The Reagan Presidency was marked by a ragged economy in which several major label recording companies disappeared. Sugar Hill's strategy in mixing recognizable names with the new artists on its roster made good sense.
But during this same era, the company still had a strong bluegrass presence, and released discs by the Nashville Bluegrass Band, New Grass Revival, Seldom Scene, etc., as well as the Russian bluegrass band Kukuruza, and Jerry Garcia and David Grisman's bluegrass experiment Old & In the Way. The latter is now considered a classic, but then the disc was an obscure one-off that other labels showed no interest in distributing. Sugar Hill also offered a home to some now legendary Texans, including Townes Van Zandt, Robert Earl Keen, and Uncle Walt's Band.
During the '90s and into the early part of the 21st century, Sugar Hill continued plowing the fertile ground they had cultivated. The company continued to release new bluegrass by artists that had established themselves on the label (i.e. Sam Bush, Jerry Douglas), those that followed in their spirit (i.e. Chris Thile, Psychograss), and even got the original founders of bluegrass -- Bill Monroe and Earl Scruggs -- on a Sugar Hill release. More oddball Texans (i.e. Terry Allen, Guy Clark, James McMurtry) found a home there. Dolly Parton's first Sugar Hill release came out in 1999, and she continues to record for the label. Sugar Hill also released seminal albums by established artists (i.e. Rodney Crowell's The Houston Kid) and new acts (i.e. Nickel Creek's first eponymous record) during the 2000s. While many other independent labels have come and gone during the past 25 years, Sugar Hill seems healthier than ever.
This 4-CD retrospective anthology offers a large, idiosyncratic slice of the Sugar Hill pie. (There's also a DVD of interviews with various musicians about the label, and five music videos.) The order of the songs makes no sense, and there's no rhyme or reason for the selections, but who really cares? The music on the discs is all first rate, because Sugar Hill has continually put out nothing but high-quality music. Think of the collection as an old recipe baked by a cook with fresh ingredients. Come on and grab a big bite. Yum.