One of the first major box set projects Bear Family assembled was a series of genre-specific retrospectives of the legendary record label Sun -- three separate LP boxes released in the mid-'80s, beginning with The Sun Country Years in 1986. Almost 30 years later, Bear Family finally upgraded these sets to CD, beginning with the six-disc The Sun Country Box in 2013. Within the box's heavy, hardbound book it is claimed that The Sun Country Box "contains the music as originally presented," with a couple of slight differences that are noteworthy to collectors. Stan Kesler's "We're Getting Closer to Being Apart" appeared on some 1986 pressings with vocals by Charlie Feathers, so both versions are here, along with three Feathers sides that were unknown when the box appeared in 1986. Also, the bonus LP that was included upon initial runs of the box is replicated with the exception of three Onie Wheeler songs, which were actually recorded for Columbia, and a Johnny Cash alternate version that's popped up on an Outtakes CD from Bear Family, thereby making it easy to cut for space reasons. Also, all the original notes and photos from the LP box are here, but the biographies and song notes have been updated, and there are more photographs and clippings featured in this hardcover book.
Now that we've gotten all the upgrade notations out of the way, let's get down to the meat of The Sun Country Box. By concentrating on country, Bear Family winds up focusing on cult figures instead of superstars. Those stars are here, but not in great numbers; there is a handful of sides from Johnny Cash, Elvis Presley, and Jerry Lee Lewis, while the Carl Perkins recordings here focus directly on his often-overlooked predilection for honky tonk. Elsewhere, some rockabilly sneaks in -- there is no other word to describe Warren Smith's wild "Ubangi Stomp" or "Rock & Roll Ruby," two of Sun's stone classics, and it also applies to the obscure Jimmy Haggett and his "Rhythm Called Rock & Roll," "Rock Me Baby," and "Rabbit Action" -- but the borders between rock & roll and country were elastic at the outset, particularly at Sam Phillips' Sun. What the reissue producers Hank Davis, Colin Escott, and Martin Hawkins strive to do is advocate for the country singers who often got lost in the standard history of Sun. That problem has been alleviated somewhat in the wake of the 1986 box and all the reissues that followed, as the combined effect has elevated the profile of Smith and Charlie Feathers, but even to this day, singers showcased here aren't particularly well-known. Slim Rhodes and Harmonica Frank Floyd, the two acts that largely comprise disc one, are the closest Sun came to pure, rural country, as vocalists like Malcolm Yelvington, Ernie Chaffin, and Onie Wheeler had more of a modern sensibility, rocking a country-boogie beat with electric instrumentation, working the ground Hank Williams plowed, making jumping records for jukeboxes but still slipping into serious tear-jerking ballads. That none of these lesser-known vocalists are major and only a handful of their singles could be argued as classics (Yelvington's "Drinking Wine Spo Dee O Dee," Wheeler's "Jump Right Out of the Jukebox") hardly diminish the impact of The Sun Country Years as a box or Sun as a label, as what's important is the sum, not the parts. By focusing on the second- and third-tier acts on the label, all the tactile sonic attributes of Sun are readily apparent -- there was something magical in that small, echo-laden studio -- and it's also clear that all the musicians are working in the same general direction. Isolate it to a single or two, or look at just the sides from the stars, these trends aren't as notable, but look at the box as a whole, and The Sun Country Years is fairly staggering, emphasizing that Phillips helped birth the sound, feel, and sensibility of modern music with what he did at Sun.