Barry Poss is an unlikely curator of Americana. Poss was born in Brantford, Ontario, a small Canadian city where his exposure to roots music was, at best, limited.
He headed south to attend Duke University in 1968, a James B. Duke Graduate Fellow studying sociology. A decade later, his master's degree was finished, he had a chapter left in his dissertation, and he was eligible for a lofty faculty position. Poss passed, though, responding instead to an advertisement from County Records, a small, traditional music label in Floyd, Va. He became their graphic designer and, before long, asked permission to start his own County-associated imprint, Sugar Hill Records. These days, he's back in Durham, living in Duke Forest, retired from day-to-day label functions but active and enthusiastic—the proud father of a label that has spawned international success with newcomers Nickel Creek, archival glory with Jerry Garcia's Old & In the Way and stability for people like Tony Rice, Doc Watson, Dolly Parton and Sam Bush.
INDEPENDENT: How old were you when you realized you wanted to turn your back on academics and pursue the record company?
BARRY POSS: I can't say that it happened on a specific day, but I was certainly thinking music was just interesting in the beginning. The kids in my class at Duke pretty quickly divvied themselves up into two different groups. There were those who could hardly wait to get back where they came from, and there were the rest of us who said, "This is a little different. Let's see what's around." One of the things that was different was a fiddler's convention in Union Grove, and the first thing I saw—I can still see it very clearly—was this very old man in this bowler cap and a string tie playing the banjo and a very young guy, maybe 7 or 8 and I assume his grandson, playing the fiddle. Maybe it was my sociology background, but I made this connection between music and culture. I followed that interest all along while I was in graduate school.
It seems like that academic background would certainly help, in terms of informing how you wanted to structure your business but, more importantly, in the kind of rigors you wanted to set up for your artists.
A lot of indie labels share a passion for the music, but I think that's a necessary condition but not a sufficient one. You have to have something else, and I was just lucky. I learned the business. I didn't know anything about it. I had the passion, but I didn't have a five-year business plan or anything. That's what conventional MBA courses offer to teach people, and I'm usually asked that, you know, "What was your first five-year plan?" I didn't have that at all. I just had a vision for what I wanted the label to be. That was real clear to me.
I think in part it came from that first experience of seeing this old man and the young kid in Union Grove. A little later on, I started going into the western North Carolina mountains, and I visited a lot of older musicians who made records in the '20s and the '30s. I came across their kids who grew up with one foot in the traditional world but who were young enough to be influenced by all kinds of current pop music, whether it was rock or jazz or anything. I thought that tension between the old and the new, the contemporary and the traditional made for an exciting type of music. I wanted contemporary music with traditional roots on the label.
Did your background ever influence the way you approached finding artists, in terms of real research and scouting and archival releases?
I had never thought about it that way, but that's another way in which the academic background kept coming into play.
In Canada, what was your first exposure to roots music? Any?
It was here. Going to the fiddler's convention was it.
So an interest in roots music was completely a college thing?
Well, I knew something just growing up as a kid, but, by and large, I was listening to the same music that most other kids were listening to and by accident I might have picked up a little bit of roots music but probably the stuff that only crossed over. I think I developed most of it here. And it went from an interest to clearly just a hard-driven passion. At the time, in the Durham-Chapel Hill area when I first came down here, there was a big—for the lack of a better term—revivalist scene, with young people playing traditional music, and it was also the days of free-format FM radio so you got to hear a lot of different music. I was exposed to a lot, but the music that appealed to me the most were the things I could attach some roots to, the stuff that sounded grounded and not prefabricated or manufactured. It was a combination of my own fieldwork in the mountains and just going to listen to music in the area.
Were there any specific musicians, locally, who had an impact on you, whether or not they were ever well-known?
One very obvious person who was well-known was Tommy Thompson, who headed the Red Clay Ramblers. Of course, the Ramblers hadn't formed yet, but every Friday night out at Hollow Rock—an area which is not really there, off Old Erwin Road and Randolph Road—there was a convenience store. Tommy lived there, and there were dances every Friday night. And there were two rooms: One room was the old-time music room and one room was the bluegrass room. But it wasn't just those two kinds of music. It was all different kinds of music, and it was a lot of fun. I eventually learned to play a little bit of banjo from Tommy, and later I learned by going up into the western part of the state. I played in a little band in Mount Airy.
And there was a duo, an older pair of musicians—Tommy Jarrell and Fred Cockerham—they represented to me that really strong old-timey tradition. And it wasn't too much of a leap to Doc Watson. Before I knew Doc, I was playing music was his father-in-law, an old-timey musician, Gaither Carlton.
What did you learn from Doc?
To me, Doc was almost a modernist at the time [laughs], but Doc taught me how you can bring together all kinds of music and still have this cultural connection between what seems to be a range of musics, and that connection was what his music was all about. Doc would play a little rock 'n' roll, a little old-time music, a little bluegrass, jazz standards, a little pop, and yet it all sounded like it came from a real place. I was very lucky, too, that I learned an enormous amount from the artists I worked with along the way.
And I was really lucky to catch a group of artists who were young and just about to burst forth in a way over the next 10 to 15 years. So, a good example would be Jerry Douglas, who was almost a teenager when I met him. Today, he's on tour opening for Paul Simon and the next day he might be playing jazz with Bill Frissell and the next day he might be in Alison Krauss' band. I learned a lot from the artists, sure, and, for myself, I didn't want to be caught pigeonholed into one arena. I liked all kinds of root music.
You weren't into roots music as a child, and some of the musicians on your label have been playing the stuff since they were babies. Are you ever humbled by their knowledge sometimes?
Oh, of course I am. All the time. A perfectly good case in point would be Chris Thile form Nickel Creek. I signed Chris when he was barely a teenager, maybe 12 or turning 13. He completely reinvents music almost every other day, and I'm just wowed by the way his mind works. I get wowed by this young group we work with from Canada called The Duhks. I don't think I would have thought of blending old-time Celtic with the Afro-Cuban beats, and they do it with ease. I get wowed all the time, actually.
How active are you with artist recruitment at this point? Do you still bring bands like The Duhks in?
No, a couple of people in the office did that. The last young band I found was Nickel Creek.
Who touched you so much before?
If there was a single artist who, early on.... Well, there was a group of artists who really captured for me all of the dreams I had about what roots music was about. Two of them were on our very first record, Ricky Skaggs and Jerry Douglas. They just captured that feeling of being old and new and making up something different. Then there was a guy named John Starling who actually is an ear nose and throat surgeon now, but he combined country and bluegrass in a rockin' way that was just completely different at the time. I didn't discover him, but I discovered these tapes that were hidden in a vault in Washington. I was rummaging through one day in the early '80s, and I found these tapes with not only John's name but also Bill Payne and Lowell George from Little Feat. I couldn't believe it, that here were all of these people coming from vastly different worlds but all making very dynamic roots music.
You mention in the box set the highlight of Doc calling you and saying he wanted you to put his records out. Tell me about some of those days.
I think there are a number of highlights or whatever you want to call them, and the Doc call was certainly one of them. I felt I had it made. Here was this sort of man that I totally respected and was in awe of—not just as a musician, but also as a person. I loved everything about Doc, and he stood for integrity and excellence. I figured if I was associated with him, it would keep me on the straight and narrow.
Another highlight was driving along Cornwallis Road in Durham and I heard, around 1979, our first single that we made, "I'll Take the Blame," on commercial radio. I had to pull over to the side of the road. It was just an overwhelming feeling. There's something that I was there at the creation of, and we went through all of the machinations of trying to produce the single and making all of the mistakes that a novice makes, and here it is. I'm listening to it on the radio. Then there's the cast of characters that I work with. And then there are individual stories about people that come to see you that you respect. Those are the bigger moments. But, along with them, I'd go to Europe and be astonished that we might be better known in Paris than in Durham. People were buying our records overseas in a lot of different countries, in part because we were representing what they felt was authentic American roots music but wasn't all that remarkable where I lived. It was astonishing to me that I'd be in Belgium or parts of Japan or Australia and people would relate to the same music.
Sometime in the mid-'80s, I got a call on a Sunday afternoon, and someone said, "Is this Barry Poss?" in this very European accent. And I said, "Yes," and they said, "Well, we're here." I said, "Who's here?" It was a couple that had come from Belgium to the U.S. just to visit the home of Sugar Hill Records. They had just arrived at the bus station. I couldn't believe it. Things like that, you know. Sometimes it's the smaller things that provide the highlights, and sometimes it's the Grammy's that are equally wonderful.
Did you pick the couple up at the bus station?
I did. They ended up staying with me for a while. They were just so enthusiastic about everything that it wore me down.
You mentioned being more well-known in France than here. But now, after Nickel Creek and some of the other successes, notoriety here is pretty widespread for Sugar Hill. Did you ever see it coming?
No. In general or just with Nickel Creek?
Well, with Nickel Creek, certainly not. If anything, everybody used to say we took a big risk in signing Nickel Creek. Actually, it was the reverse. We took a big risk in not signing Nickel Creek, which we didn't at the beginning. I signed Chris and he told me about this brother and sister—Sean and Sara Watkins—who he played music with, and he asked me to listen to them. And I did, and it was clear that they were going to be great but they weren't yet. It would've been easier to sign them then to be sure that we had them, but I didn't. It didn't happen for a year and a half or two years. I kept listening to them, and they kept getting stronger and stronger and stronger. But, when we finally did, they were ready to record, we were ready, but neither of us knew what we were ready for. We just thought that it would be slow growth, and they'd develop some fans.
It was slow growth at the beginning. They received very little airplay in the beginning, and, overall, never did get a whole lot of airplay. But what made the difference for them was an early video, and I think people—it was a whole different audience, a much younger, a much more informed audience—saw them as an intelligent alternative to other teen stars who were making not-very-interesting music. I never saw it coming. And it was fun. That was before all of the managers and agents. It was a bunch of kids wanting to make music, and we were trying to help them.
And the label?
I didn't see it coming as far as the label goes, either, and I guess it was again because I didn't have a classic entrepreneurial approach. I was busy doing something I believed in, and we kind of grew in steps. I was so busy doing what I was doing. When you're in the middle of it, in the thick of everyday battles, you often don't realize how magical it is. Now, I can look back and say, "My goodness, that was a really remarkable career. That was fantastic." We handled it in steps.
And the best thing for me was that we didn't grow by becoming more mainstream. I think what happened was the mainstream grew to us. Fundamentally, we kept the same principles. I know this to be true because I know, in Nashville, there were certain labels started by majors to say, "We want to be more like Sugar Hill." So you started seeing people like Nanci Griffith or Lyle Lovett get signed, or Steve Earle. The mainstream moved towards us, instead of us towards them.
When you saw the majors doing that, was it unnerving at all?
It wasn't unnerving, but it did mean some changes. Certainly, a lot of artists went to the majors from us. But here's the deal: We can't do what the majors do. We just don't have those kinds of resources, but I quickly discovered they can't do what we do, either. It's a whole different business model. It's easy to do major-label bashing, and I'm sure I've done my share. But—the truth is—they are very good at what they do, but they can't do what we do. And vice versa: We are very good at what we do. I don't think they can operate at this level.
This may be a silly question, and it will certainly be tough to answer. But how would you describe what you do?
[pauses] That's not a silly question at all. [pauses] Well, there are a couple of practical things, and that has to do with models. The majors operate on a hits model, and we—early on—operated on a catalogue model. We didn't have to sell a huge amount. We counted on selling a modest amount over a long period of time, whereas they sell a large amount in a short period of time. So, part of what we did is we kept things in print. Our titles were in print 15 or 20 years after they were released, and that's unheard of unless it's a huge hit. When it comes down to it, I had this boutique model with a select roster of prestige artists and a focus. We would operate with integrity and strive for excellence, almost like a storefront. We weren't trying to be everything to everyone. It is my main mantra that I never intended Sugar Hill to be everything to everyone. I wanted to make a statement and to have an identity like Sun Records did. I think we—and, when I say me, I mean most independent labels—pay attention more and are closer to the street and to the artist. All those things.
Another major-label type of thing: When talking about Nickel Creek, you mentioned "when it was fun." Tell me when it's not fun.
It's not that it's not fun, but when there is less at stake, you tend to be more easygoing about it all. In a way, everything was successful for them. They started successful. To them, they thought that's what the music business was all about. It was very hard to say, "Look, you're in a very rarified position." Not many people get a gold record their first record out. It doesn't happen that way. I think we had very close relationships with their parents, too. Remember, they were very young. By the time more parties get involved and everybody wants to show their contribution and the expectations go proportionally up, it is more stressful. But I was lucky in my career. I had a lot of those surprises. The stakes were somewhat low, so when good things happen they're always a delight.
An obvious one that comes to mind is that I licensed this record called Old & In the Way that I thought only a few bluegrass people would be interested in. It had Peter Rowan and David Grisman. But it was one of my great miscalculations of all time. Also in the band was Jerry Garcia, and the record first came out on The Grateful Dead's own label. It had been out of print for a while. I didn't realize all of the legions of Deadheads would want to touch everything Jerry was involved in. It's not that we had this great strategic plan. It was just a delight.