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With names like Townes Van Zandt, Robert Earl Keen Jr. and Guy Clark signed to recording contracts, you might think Sugar Hill Records was housed next to some barbecue joint in Austin, Texas. It ain't.

And although it once harbored current Music City stalwarts like Ricky Skaggs and hillbilly rocker Marty Stuart, Sugar Hill isn't in Tennessee, either.

No, the hottest entry in the pickin'-and-pluckin' derby is headquartered in Durham, North Carolina, a town not exactly famous for its contributions to the recording industry. Sugar Hill is celebrating its 15th year as a classy, quality-minded purveyor of alternative acoustical music. Despite more than a minor accent on the obscure, Sugar Hill has positively thrived, now boasting a roster worthy of major-label signings, a top-of-the-line list of regular guests and a musical who's who of made-it-big alumni.

Founded in 1978 by president Barry Poss, the label made its first release--by experimental bluegrass band Boone Creek--a portent of successes to come. A five-piece outfit that included then relatively unknown ex-Bill Monroe sideman Ricky Skaggs, the group capitalized on the label's laissez-faire attitude, taking bluegrass into unexplored regions. Boone Creek's first release also opened the dollar-conscious eye of Nashville to the possibilities of translating bluegrass into album sales.

Boone Creek exemplified precisely what Poss was seeking: a blend of old and new musical ideas, with quality as a hallmark.

"It's the 'Sugar Hill sound,'" enthuses the label's PR head, Judy McDonough. "Like the old Sun Records: You may not really know who the artist is--may never have heard of them--but the sound tells you it's Sugar Hill."
Following the initial Boone Creek experiment, Skaggs' solo work brought the label an important measure of fame--and Skaggs a juicy array of major-label offers--with the six-figure-selling Sweet Temptation in 1980. After a pair of successful follow-ups proved Skaggs was no pickmeister flash in the pan, Epic Records won the signing wars and released Don't Cheat in Our Hometown. The album, a Sugar Hill/Epic co-production, made Skaggs a certified star, spawned several No. 1 hits and sold nearly a million copies.

While Sugar Hill has certainly had its share of big-name talent, the primary part of the label's tradition is to continue championing both hopelessly obscure and generally unprofitable acts.

Such as, oh, a Russian bluegrass band. Kukuruza is an eight-piece group that has managed to marry traditional fatherland folk standards and melodies with modern grass. And it works.

On the band's inaugural Sugar Hill release, Crossing Borders, lead singer Irina Surina's powerful, ethereal vocals and Sergei Mosolov's inspired fiddle open musical doors the rest of the band pours through. An especially tasty entry is the plaintive "Gornista," about a young woman whose impending marriage makes her reflect on her life and future. By itself, it's a beautiful number, but with County Clare songstress Maura O'Connell providing delectable harmonies--in Russian, of course--to Surina's radiant lead, it's East meets West on a mountaintop. Not for the musically meek, to be sure, but an absolute score for those seeking worldly adventure.

Sugar Hill has also recorded the refined Leon Redbone. No Regrets, his intriguing 1988 album, featured the singer's rich, sonorous vocals in the flat-out country of "Mr. and Mrs. Used to Be," a masterful departure from Redbone's typical 1930s blues-and-pop fare.

There is a home on the Hill for many artists of greater talent than fame: Canadian folk singer Ian Tyson, singer-songwriter Jesse Winchester and Washington, D.C., bluegrass outfit Seldom Scene, to name a few. The Scene recorded its first album for the label, Act Four, in 1980, and remains one of Sugar Hill's longest-running, regularly recorded rosterites. Another example of Sugar Hill's commitment to experimentation is the unlikely teaming of the Scene with nonbluegrasser Jonathan Edwards on the album Blue Ridge. The album is unusual, sometimes sparkling, but generally uneven. And that is sometimes the point at Sugar Hill: having the ability to try something new. "Taking chances is important to us," McDonough says. "You'll see acts--great acts--on Sugar Hill that simply wouldn't find a home elsewhere. Take Kukuruza, for instance. They're a little different, even for Sugar Hill, but the thing is, it works."

McDonough rightfully expresses excitement about veterans Robin and Linda Williams as well, whose Turn Toward Tomorrow is the richest, Mother Earthiest sort of folk-country to be found anywhere. The couple has been pretty much on the road for the past 20 years, but has finally found a ray of spotlight under which to light for a spell. Turn Toward Tomorrow showcases the best of the pair's songs, including the wistful "The Other Side of Town" and "On the Day the Last Tear Fell," a cry-in-yer-beer complaint, each worthy of a backwoods jukebox.

Likewise, Georgian Pat Alger. A former folkie and wildly successful Music City songwriter (Kathy Mattea's "She Came From Fort Worth," Nanci Griffith's "Lone Star State of Mind"), Alger's 1991 solo debut, True Love and Other Short Stories, is an excellent passel of lovelorn vignettes, and it laid the foundation for the recently released Seeds. With Mattea, Trisha Yearwood, Sugar Hill fiddler Tim O'Brien and current king of country Garth Brooks contributing to the album, Alger provides about as much Nashville-flavored country as you'll find at Sugar Hill. But again, it works. McDonough observes that Sugar Hill takes great pride in keeping some Carolina spin at the label. Along with providing high-tone reproductions by the likes of N.C.-born Doc Watson (Elementary Doctor Watson! and Memories, the bluesy, grassy, gospel-filled 1975 effort that introduced Watson to the great musically unwashed), the Sugar Hill inn also features accommodations for area artists. Homeboy Mike Cross, for example, melds contemporary folk and country with Gaelic-mountain overtones for a gripping, powerful listen. His nine albums sell well around his Carolina stomping grounds, McDonough notes.

"That's the thing about Sugar Hill," she says. "There's only a few of us who work here, so everyone knows everyone else. Little artist, big artist--it's a first-name family with a common goal." That goal is to put out good music, and the effort hasn't gone unrewarded by the industry. Sugar Hill artists have scored four Grammys from 13 finalist nominations, and no indie has garnered more NAIRD (National Association of Independent Record Distributors and Manufacturers) awards in the past two years than Sugar Hill.

As part of its 15th anniversary milestone, the label is putting together a series of "best of" discs, including two-volume sets titled Best of Sugar Hill Gospel and Best of Sugar Hill Bluegrass, each due out very soon.

"After 15 years and more than 150 titles, it's no small amount of work to pull 'best of' collections together," McDonough notes. "But I can tell you this: It's a labor of love.

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Larry Crowley