Sugar Hill, Record Cellar, and Me
Anecdote #1, as detailed by label founder Barry Poss in the liner notes of the recent box set Sugar Hill Records: A Retrospective: “James McMurtry’s manager was on the line, asking if we’d be interested in working with his client….It was arranged that I would meet James for dinner prior to an upcoming gig in nearby Raleigh so we could get to know each other. I thought we would have lots to talk about, but it quickly became apparent to me that I was doing all the talking (sort of like My Dinner With Andre — without Andre). He looked down at his plate most of the time and hardly spoke a word.”
Anecdote #2, from Neil Drucker, co-founder of Record Cellar, a Philadelphia-area label formed in the late 1980s to put out a record by the band Flight Of Mavis: “In 1990, Flight Of Mavis had as their booking agent a company named Frontier Booking. Another one of Frontier’s clients was a band called R.E.M. Somehow, someway a story came out in the U.K. weekly music mag NME that R.E.M. was playing small club shows as a support band in the U.S. using the name Flight Of Mavis. Even without the internet, word spread and people were coming to see Flight Of Mavis while expecting to see R.E.M. Flight Of Mavis did okay and ended up with a lot of new fans.”
One of the many cool things about smaller record labels is that you sometimes get to have a cameo in their anecdotes. I was a couple tables over from Poss and McMurtry on My Dinner With Barry night, priming for the latter’s show. I was close enough that I considered offering them my knife so they could use it to cut the tension. (It’s worth noting that McMurtry did end up joining the Sugar Hill ranks.) And in the fall of 1990 I was standing in line outside Cat’s Cradle in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, trying to get into a Reivers/Flight Of Mavis show, only to be turned away because everybody and his frat brother were already in the club, selling it out in anticipation of seeing a woodshedding R.E.M.
Such brushes with labelness make you feel that you have a relationship beyond simply seller and consumer. That feeling grew when I found myself in the middle of a group of Sugar Hillians on an Austin-bound plane one year for SXSW and marveling at their camaraderie, and whenever a handwritten note from Drucker accompanied a Record Cellar CD.
I know next to nothing about the music business, and I intend to cling to that naivete as long as I can. That allows me to embrace music as something measured by organs both tangible and intangible — hearts, guts, souls — and not something as annoyingly real as a ledger sheet. It’s a lot more fun to think of record labels as people and not big buildings, to picture decisions being made because someone wandered into a club and fell in love with a band and not because of demographic data. Sugar Hill and Record Cellar are not big buildings.
Thus, recent sad news about both labels hit hard. In early January, Sugar Hill announced that the longstanding home office in Durham, North Carolina, was closing; the imprint will continue, but will be handled from the Nashville office of Welk Music Group (which had purchased Sugar Hill several years back). A few weeks earlier a massively entertaining three-disc set of Record Cellar recordings titled Town And Country 1989-2006 had arrived. The first two discs contain previously released material from the flagship bands Frog Holler, Rolling Hayseeds, Buzz Zeemer, and Flight Of Mavis, while the third disc featured ten new songs. The final sentence of the typically straightforward press sheet stated simply, “This will be Record Cellar’s last release.”
Anecdote #3, courtesy of Lindsay Reid, until recently the Radio Promotions Coordinator at Sugar Hill: “On Thursday night [the night before Sugar Hill’s last day in Durham], Scott Miller overnighted a bottle of Basil Hayden’s Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey. He included a typewritten note, a very Scott Milleresque thing, saying, ‘Wish I could be there to share this. Please raise a toast to the work you’ve done, and more importantly to the fine people you all are. Godspeed, Scott.’ On our last day, we called him, put him on speaker phone, and all took a shot of the whiskey.”
I wasn’t able to crash that last anecdote, but it speaks volumes about the relationship between artists and staff at Sugar Hill. And here’s Drucker’s take from his experience: “I look at all the artists on the label as my friends. I care about them and their families. I’m trying to help them with their music, and they’re trying to help me with the label. I think our lives will always be linked.”
Let’s hope so. Because I don’t rely on music to make a living, the glass can be as rose-colored as I want it to be when I look in from the outside. I have the luxury of wishing that the music business was all about people and connections and wanting folks to hear a song. And I can hope that still, occasionally, it’s about the drama of strained but ultimately rewarding dinners unfolding two tables away, and scrappy bands looking for love, and toasts that are no less heartfelt for being long distance.