Dave & Sugar
Greatest Hits/New York Wine and Tennessee Shine
The trio known as Dave & Sugar were once labeled “the ABBA of Country Music,” and we’ll let you determine if that’s a good or bad thing. Snarkiness aside, that assessment isn’t entirely inaccurate. The group consisted of Dave Rowland and his backing duo Sugar, which featured a rotating cast of female singers. Active from 1975 to 1986, their greatest success came within the confines of the Seventies. They specialized in taking current pop songs and giving them a countrified makeover, though, truthfully, their version of “country” is more akin to easy listening and variety hour fare than what one thinks of country music.
Yet for all the “who-is-and-isn’t-country” semantic arguments one could have regarding Dave & Sugar, one fact remains: all sixteen of their singles charted in the top forty Country charts. Of those sixteen, eleven made it to the top ten, including three number one singles. So even though they might not sound particularly “Country,” both fans and radio alike felt differently. That is an impressive accomplishment for any musician, irrespective of genre, so one cannot begrudge them their success. Morello’s compilation offers up the groups final two records for RCA Victor, 1980’s New York Wine & Tennessee Shine, and 1981’s Greatest Hits.
The music itself found on this twofer isn’t bad, either. The first half of the disc is their Greatest Hits record, from 1981, and collects nine of those hits and two album cuts, one of which was released as a single to promote the collection. The hits are here, of course; “The Door Is Always Open,” from 1975, is a catchy love song that sounds ready-made for Hee-Haw. “Tear Time,” from 1978, is a pop ballad that channels The Carpenters. “Golden Tears,” their biggest hit, was released in 1979, and is an upbeat cautionary tale regarding chasing money and the dangers of loving someone because of their partner’s wealth. Tempered with a lush string section and gorgeous harmonies, it was rightfully a hit. Interestingly enough, aside from “Golden Tears,” the only other Dave & Sugar song to survive on current vintage Country radio is their debut single, “The Queen of the Silver Dollar,” written by Shel Silverstein, and was only a modest hit.
Their fifth album, New York Wine & Tennessee Shine, is an interesting record. On the cusp of a new decade, the trio seems poised to mature with it as well. The country/pop sensibility that would propel the crossover success of artists such as Alabama, Dolly Parton, Juice Newton, and Ronnie Milsap is very much in evidence here. With toned-down arrangements and vocals, and a little more of a “country” flavored arrangement—pedal steels to the fore!—they lose some of the hokum of their earlier records, and the album is quite enjoyable. Songs like “Learnin’ To Fall In Love Again” and “You (Make Me Wonder Why)” are slick, radio-friendly numbers; “Just A Whole Lotta Love” is a catchy singalong-style number, and perhaps the most “Country ABBA” song featured here is “A Love Song,” which feels as if it came from Arrival or The Visitors. Even the songs that stick to their tried-and-true formula such as the title track and “It Ain’t Easy Lovin’ You” feel sedate and warm.
New York Wine and Tennessee Shine was a vast improvement over their hokey earlier work, but it was too little, too late; they would release their next album, Pleasure, in 1981, but Rowland, who had tired of the project, released a solo album the following year, the tellingly-titled Sugar Free. He brought back Dave & Sugar for a comeback album in 1986, with a different lineup, but it failed to chart, and he disbanded the trio shortly after its release. Times change, and tastes change, and Dave & Sugar was left behind, fading into obscurity. Even so, these two records are enjoyable; they offer up the best of their output, and make a compelling document of one of the forgotten stars of 1970s country.