Exec oversaw Sugar Hill Records as Americana grew

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Bev Paul, who as general manager oversaw the Sugar Hill Records label as it became a staple of the modern roots music movement, died April 19 in Durham, North Carolina, after a battle with lung cancer.

Paul was the general manager of Sugar Hill throughout the 1990s and, after a brief stint in management, again in the 2000s. The label won more than a dozen Grammys in bluegrass, country and folk, including artist awards as Nickel Creek, Dolly Parton, Jerry Douglas and Tim O’Brien who recorded for the company under her supervision. Other major artists she championed at the imprint included Sam Bush, Robert Earl Keen and Scott Miller.

Paul served several terms on the board of the International Bluegrass Association and was among the group of professionals who joined forces to form the Americana Music Association. In 2020, the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum honored her for her contributions to the industry by selecting her as the subject of the annual Louise Scruggs Memorial Forum. (Watch the video of that forum with Paul here.)

Discussions were held with a number of artists and executives Variety about Paul’s impact on their career, the label or the roots world.

“Bev was my mentor,” said Traci Thomas, Jason Isbell’s longtime manager. “She gave me a chance as a young publicist and changed my life. Without her I wouldn’t be where I am today. There’s also a whole group of industry people we like to call the Sugar Hill gang who would probably tell you the same thing. She gave us all a chance and believed in us before we believed in ourselves.

Holly Lowman, of Red Light Management, also credits Paul with teaching her key principles as she began her career. “Above all, Bev Paul taught us how to listen: image, a marketing plan, commercial appeal,” says Lowman. “If the music was great, if it was necessary, if it spoke to you, then we had a story to tell. The music always came first for Bev. Many of us from Sugar Hill are still finding our way in the music world with this ethos as our North Star, and I hope we have made her proud.

Tim O’Brien, who hired Paul as his manager between her stints at the label, says: “Bev was a good-natured presence at Sugar Hill Records. Her knack for bringing opportunities out of the woodwork was her secret weapon. She wanted to make things happen and she just wanted to do music. Bev was smart enough and generous enough to make both the artists and the label happy. And she could let you know what the odds were, what you were up against in the recording business, and then—yes—help you beat some of those odds as well.

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Sam Bush, the mandolinist and progressive bluegrass pioneer whose recordings with Sugar Hill spanned from the mid-’80s to the mid-2000s, addressed Paul directly in a statement of affection. “Bev, you were a leader in shaping the marketing direction for New Grass Revival and later my Sugar Hill solo records, with your passion for the music and attention to detail,” says Bush. “We couldn’t ask for a more understanding professional advocate and, above all, a better friend. You will remain forever in our hearts and always in our memories.”

Barry Poss, the founder and owner of Sugar Hill, conveys a vivid memory of his first meeting in 1991 with the woman who would become one of his most important employees. “When Bev Paul interviewed for the position of marketing director at Sugar Hill Records, I said hello, and she promptly explained in detail why I should hire her,” Poss recalls. “I didn’t ask a single question and, as with many things about Bev, it was a no-fuss, no-muss display and right on target. She learned the trade, worked her way up to managing director and we all flourished together, thanks in no small part to the reasons she explained in the original interview.”

Molly Nagel Driessen, now with Nashville management and marketing firm MMgt, spent 12 years working through the ranks of Sugar Hill, starting in the mailroom and ending as manager of the label’s Nashville office and staff. She says: ‘I was one of the many little boys that Bev Paul put under her mighty wing. She was a true force who brought a deep love of music and a commitment to artists to work every day, putting them at the center of every decision. I didn’t know at the time what an achievement that was. She was also very loyal to her people, nurturing and identifying young talents in her team and raising them. I was incredibly fortunate to have her as a mentor and protector, to be allowed to make mistakes under her measured gaze, and to be able to look up and see this powerful woman above me cracking the ceilings.

“Her legacy really cannot be overstated in our little corner of the industry, and I see it and am grateful for it every day. She was truly a titan,” adds Nagel Driessen. “I hope she’s up there smoking one with Guy Clark, looking at the shit and laughing.”

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O’Brien worked with Paul more extensively than many, as he had her as the first manager he ever hired, when she left Sugar Hill for a brief period after it was sold in the late 1990s before coming back on board and as a blessing to his career in all those eras and capacities. He credits her for his Grammy win: “I had this record, ‘Fiddler’s Green,’ that came out and she situated it in such a way that it actually ended up on the Grammy ballot and somehow won, versus quite a large force majeure.”

The barriers between fan, friend and manager did not apply to Paul, says O’Brien. “She wanted to be involved in music and became friends with many musicians. That’s certainly what Sugar Hill was like, but Bev had more contact with the artists than with some of the employees. Of course we played a lot in North Carolina (where the label was based) and I saw her there, but she also came to Nashville and to some other events I played at around the country. She worked in a fringe side of popular entertainment (layers) – I mean, it is popular music, but not as popular as pop music, but she just loved the music. And she would go to the different venues and go to festivals and things and see what was happening there and who was listening, and who was playing, and see how it worked so she could try to get you involved. somewhere and help you find those avenues where you might try it.

“We all liked a lot of things, a lot of music,” O’Brien continues, “and after the gigs we’d stay for a drink or a smoke, and we’d talk about all the music we liked. Ricky Skaggs had left the label and gone on to great success, but then new people like Robert Earl Keen came in and they got excited. It was a small shop and everyone there was very interested in the music. I’m sure it was a good job because they were interested in the music and the people who worked there, but it probably wasn’t. the the highest paying job anyone can get. If you didn’t like music, you probably wouldn’t have liked it. Rounder (Sugar Hill’s closest competitor) had gotten bigger, but she followed the core of what she liked, discovered that this label was releasing stuff she liked here, and then she helped make it even more like what she liked liked, you know?

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“I’m sure everyone in the industry is looking to get some upside on the ledgers and make some money, and I guess you can hope to make a lot of money somewhere, but mostly they were happy to see the scene get going – there was already a scene going on there and they really expanded it. Barry, the founder of Sugar Hill, had a vision for it: that they were musicians who had one foot in the tradition and one foot moving forward. And if you look at the artists they signed, some had previously recorded for majors and dropped back to independent, but others were new artists who were really having a lot of success” – including Keen, who O’Brien credits as one of the edgier singer-songwriters on the scene he said she naturally gravitated towards. “And it’s thanks to people like Bev who made this possible.”

Paul spent her childhood in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, but is said to have fallen in love with the South when she traveled with her father to his class reunion at Duke University in Durham. She moved there for college and had some of her first experiences in the music industry at a folk music coffeehouse on campus, followed by a stint at the Gaslight Cafe in Fayetteville, NC. She moved to the Raleigh-Durham area, joined radio station WQDR and worked in the home office of the Record Bar, a national music store, where she met rising talents like the Judds and Alan Jackson before they made it big.

The time she spent in Raleigh-Durham before joining Sugar Hill in 1991 was also when she met her husband-to-be Bobby Paul, who survives her.

Jed Hilly, the current executive director of the Americana Music Association, who took office after the organization’s founding, credits Paul’s role as one of the forces that made this possible, along with her larger legacy in music. “Bev Paul was a fearless advocate for the artists we love, and they loved her,” he says. “Her death came too soon.”

In lieu of flowers, Paul’s family has asked friends to donate to the V Foundation for Cancer Research http://www.v.organd/or “please support live, local musicians and artists.”

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