The four-CD, one-DVD Sugar Hill Records: A Retrospective is a classy package. The set comes in a tidy little box that resembles a dignified Whitman Sampler. The discs are in sturdy brown sleeves, and the accompanying 68-page booklet is healthy, maybe handsome. From the stylus-on-record graphic adorning the front cover to the detailed tracklist on the flip side, everything is in its right place.
That all seems fitting, one might think on first blush, for a record label that specializes in bluegrass, that orderly form of music where the pickers dress up and stand in a straight line. But what this ambitious collection makes clear is that, despite the label's earliest reputation and releases, Sugar Hill's aspirations have always roamed beyond bluegrass, just as bluegrass-ish former Sugar Hillians Bad Livers, in all their "Lust for Life"-covering glory, didn't exactly dress up or toe the straight line. You can't always judge a box by the sensible shades of brown on its cover.
"I wanted [Sugar Hill] to make a statement, to stand for something, to have a signature sound, much like Sun Records of the 1950s, where you might not know the artists but you trusted the label," writes founder Barry Poss in the bountiful liner notes, defining the mission statement of the Durham-born-and-based imprint. "The label's focus would come from my own passion for contemporary music rooted in tradition in some way." The 81 songs on the four CDs here back up such a claim in spades.
One could make a case for the discs being labeled "Bluegrass," "Newgrass," "Singer-Songwriter" and "Other," respectively, but crossover is inevitable, and Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown, the Gourds and Donna the Buffalo certainly warrant better categorization than "other." Instead, the music is presented in loose chronological order, the span between 1978 and 2003 divided into four unequal eras. Disc One is understandably bluegrass heavy, with stalwarts such as Ricky Skaggs, Tony Rice and Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver all getting multiple turns in the spotlight. New Grass Revival and Hot Rize reveal new spins on the genre.
The venerable Doc Watson offers his own brand of bluegrass courtesy of "Greenville Trestle High," from his Grammy-winning Riding the Midnight Train, but it's Peter Rowan's 1982 take on "Moonshiner" (a song that, a decade later, would again be brought to the attention of adventurous roots and rock fans thanks to Uncle Tupelo's version) supported by Skaggs, Sam Bush and Jerry Douglas that best embodies the "contemporary music rooted in tradition" principle.
The singer-songwriters start to surface on Disc Two, namely Robert Earl Keen (whose best work was with Sugar Hill) and the justifiably legendary Townes Van Zandt, here represented by "At My Window." Emmylou Harris guests on lead vocals with the Seldom Scene on a gorgeous live take on "Satan's Jeweled Crown," but the disc's biggest name—as sales and disciples go, at least—is Jerry Garcia. Sugar Hill's reissue of the self-titled album from Garcia's Old & In the Way side-project brought not only new (but Dead) fans to the label but also, in doing so, "paid for many [other records] that did not sell so well."
Singer-songwriters assert themselves even more on Disc Three, and the mid-disc stretch of James McMurtry, Guy Clark, Terry Allen and Darrell Scott is especially potent. Scott's "You'll Never Leave Harlan Alive" is a collection highlight, and, if this box set does nothing but convince you to pick up one of Scott's records, it's a success. The late Tommy Thompson, backed by the Red Clay Ramblers, provides the set's most moving moment with "Way Long Timey Ago," a selection from Daddies Sing Goodnight: A Father's Collection of Sleepytime Songs.
Disc Four opens with Rodney Crowell's "I Walk the Line (Revisited)," notable both for Johnny Cash's vocal cameo and for being from Crowell's The Houston Kid, which gets my vote as Sugar Hill's single greatest release. (In a nice bit of symmetry, "Hey Porter," with Marty Stuart on lead guitar and mandolin and Cash on vocals, is one of the highlights of Disc One.) The third disc is the collection's most eclectic, too, the aforementioned Bad Livers, Mr. Brown, the Gourds and Donna the Buffalo sharing space with Dolly Parton (a coup for the label), slide master Sonny Landreth, Jesse Winchester, and crowd-pleasers and demographic-crossing cash cows Nickel Creek.
That final disc, like its three compatriots, demonstrates the thoughtful work done by Poss and company in sorting through some 3,000 songs to come up with the retrospective's roster. Scott Miller's epistolary "Dear Sarah," for example, reflects the sense of place and history that characterizes the best of his writing. And the Gourds' "Hallelujah Shine" captures their gospel-trad-Cajun, Band-meets-Sir-Douglas jubilee, or at least as much as such a quicksilver sound is capable of being bottled.
The stage is set for discoveries throughout as well, be it Hot Rize's country & western alter egos Red Knuckles & the Trailblazers or John Cowan's record of classic soul covers, Soul'd Out, whose "Dark End of the Street" shines near the end of Disc Three. Individual songs are epiphanies too, a case in point being Sam Bush's "All Night Radio," which comes off like a companion song to "Caravan" and, fittingly, sounds like Van Morrison in mountain-soul mode.
As top-shelf as the tunes are, the stories shared by Poss and the artists both in the booklet and on the DVD are right there with them, whether it's Poss explaining how the postman was instantly appointed A&R Director at Sugar Hill's inception or Allen's reminiscences of Poss, the man he calls Captain Zero. Introducing McMurtry's typically brilliant "For All I Know," Poss writes of a particularly uncomfortable pre-gig meal with McMurtry before the latter signed with the label. As it turns out, I happened to be a few tables over at the brewpub in question, getting hopped up for the show at the Berkeley, and McMurtry did indeed have a look on his face that suggested Poss had offered to perform a root canal on him—blindfolded.
Such circumstances give this set an extra dimension for Triangle music fans. Perhaps you'll feel that, by supporting the artists of this homegrown label, you've contributed to its success in some small way or, at least, had a good seat for witnessing it. And while Sugar Hill has become a big-time brand name in the roots music world, it still has the community-friendly feel of a mom and pop store. That just might be the best definition of a perfect package.