(NASHVILLE SKYLINE is a column by CMT/CMT.com Editorial Director Chet Flippo.)
There was a time in this country when record labels really mattered, a time when certain well-run labels were so respected for their quality that many music fans would buy anything released by those labels because of their tradition of good music. The original Sun Records was one of those labels. Others have included Atlantic and Elektra and Vanguard and Arhoolie. And, for the past 25-plus years, Sugar Hill Records has kept that tradition alive.
Launched in a Durham, N.C., apartment in 1978 with the release of One Way Track by Boone Creek, a young group that included Ricky Skaggs and Jerry Douglas, Sugar Hill has over the years presented some exemplary recordings by today’s roots-based artists. Now, the label justifiably celebrates its history with the release of a four-CD, 81-cut boxed set, Sugar Hill Records: A Retrospective.
The fact that, after 25 years, Sugar Hill founder Barry Poss has resisted buyout offers from major conglomerates and remains based in Durham says much about what Sugar Hill stands for. When he started the label against all odds, he says “Well, when you’re young and stupid and a little brash, you really don’t know what you can’t do. I wasn’t planning at the time. I wasn’t thinking 25 years ahead. I really had this idea that this mixture of people reaching back into older music and making something new would make for something really exciting and new. And I just wanted to capture it.”
Sugar Hill’s staying put in North Carolina has raised questions in the music industry, and Poss has been approached by many takeover suitors over the years. He thinks the label is better off being where it is.
“I have felt an enormous pressure for a number of years,” he says, “first to move to Nashville. That would have been the obvious place. In hindsight, I think it was a good idea not to — for a couple of reasons. Here, we just do what we do. We don’t think about what the other guy is doing. And there’s that curiosity factor, like ‘How do those guys do what they do up there?'”
The Sugar Hill artist roster over the years has included such names as Dolly Parton, Chris Hillman, Doc Watson, Sam Bush, Del McCoury, Peter Rowan, Clarence “Gatemouth” Brown, Chris Thile, Marty Stuart, Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver, Edgar Meyer, Terry Allen, Rodney Crowell, Robert Earl Keen and the Country Gentlemen. Poss’ liner notes in the boxed set are well worth your time for his anecdotes about all the artists and why he was attracted to their music.
Here’s Poss writing about Ricky Skaggs: “When we issued Sweet Temptation in 1979, only our sixth release, we were still a tiny company in our first year of business, but I knew we had something special. Ricky combined traditional bluegrass and country in a completely new way. This was the sound I was looking for: a roots-based contemporary music. … Skaggs already had a great reputation as a great talent in bluegrass circles … and was getting notice as a member of Emmylou Harris’ fine Hot Band, but Sweet Temptation launched Ricky’s solo career and paved the way for the neo-traditionalist movement in country music. It also put Sugar Hill on the map.”
Again, here’s Poss on the great Doc Watson: “I knew Doc Watson’s father-in-law, Gaither Carlton, long before I met Doc himself. In the late ’60s, when I was still in graduate school, I used to travel up Highway 421, near the Blue Ridge Parkway, at Deep Gap, N.C., to play music with Gaither. Maybe that connection helped Doc find his way to Sugar Hill years later. I don’t know, but when he did, I felt like we had made it. For me, having Doc on Sugar Hill was a kind of validation of what I wanted the label to be about. It wasn’t so much Doc’s prestige, his fame, his Grammys or his hot licks. It wasn’t any of those things. It was simply that Doc Watson exuded excellence and integrity.”
And here’s Townes Van Zandt by Poss: “I first met Townes Van Zandt over the telephone. After I introduced myself, he didn’t offer a hello or how are you or any other pleasantry. He said, ‘Do you have a quarter in your pocket?’ I checked, and replied that I did. ‘Flip it,’ he said, ‘and call odds or evens.’ I did, announced heads, and he quickly replied, ‘You lose. Do you want to make it double or nothing?’ About a hundred dollars in the hole later, I came to my senses and realized that I was taken in by the gentle pleading in his voice, which belied a wicked sense of humor. That same plaintive voice will take you into his songs, but the voice is simply the vehicle for his brilliant poetry.”
What’s next for Sugar Hill? “There was no five-year plan when I started and there isn’t one now,” Poss said. “When I started, it was eight-track tapes and LPs, and now it’s CDs and MP3s. And maybe our first marketing was a mimeographed sheet of paper stapled to a lamppost, and now we have pages on MySpace. The music changes, the artists will change, but I’m hoping that the principles remain the same.”