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Hillbilly Heaven

The late Leon Kagarise left behind a priceless vault of country photos and recordings

Country star Ray Price poses backstage in one of Leon Kagarise's photographs, now on exhibit at the Creative Alliance at the Patterson.

By Geoffrey Himes | Posted 5/26/2010

The Way We Was: The Leon Kagarise Archives 1961-1971

Creative Alliance at the Patterson, through June 4

On Sept. 3, 1962, hundreds of cars headed northeast out of Baltimore City and County. They headed up Route 1, across the Conowingo Dam over the Susquehanna River and into the Cecil County hamlet of Rising Sun. They turned off onto a dirt road that took them to the banks of the Octoraro Creek, where they found a roofless stage of hammered-together lumber with colored pennants strung from each side. Up the slope from the river were benches--long 2-by-10 planks propped up on cement blocks.

After buying a ticket ($1 in advance, $1.50 at the gate), you had to grab a spot on a bench quickly because people were streaming in from all over Maryland, Delaware, Pennsylvania, and even Washington, D.C. They were drawn by the hand-typed white cards that read, coming attractions!! new river ranch!! . . . big labor day show! johnny cash!! george jones!! mother maybelle!! carter sisters!! If ever a show deserved all those exclamation marks, this one did. Can you imagine what that show must have sounded like? What it must have looked like?

Well, you don't have to imagine, because a shy audio repairman from Baltimore named Leon Kagarise (KEG-uh-rice) was there snapping color slides and taping the concert on a reel-to-reel Ampex. It was just one of hundreds of shows he documented at New River Ranch and its sister facility, Sunset Park, up the road a bit in Pennsylvania. Two dozen of those photos are now on display at the Creative Alliance at the Patterson, and many more can be found in the 2008 book Pure Country: The Leon Kagarise Archives: 1961-1971. Kagarise's heirs are negotiating to have the tapes released as well.

Kagarise took a picture of June Carter singing that day with Cash's band, the Tennessee Three. Half obscured by Marshall Grant's upright bass, Carter has hiked up the pink hem of her white ruffled dress so she can dance a hot two step in her red high heels. Three little girls sitting on the edge of the stage are gazing in wonder over their shoulders at this heir to the Carter Family cutting loose in the leafy woods that frame the shot. Few photographs tell you as much about 1962 as this one.

Another photo captures Cash himself, wiry and wired in a black shirt and slacks as he swings his acoustic guitar beneath the two bare bulbs that illuminated the New River Ranch stage at night. Kagarise's unreleased tapes from that night reveal that Cash and the Tennessee Three played a lean, twitchy brand of rockabilly markedly different from the countrypolitan records he was making in Nashville for Columbia Records. He ripped through a version of his old Sun Records number, "Country Boy," and remade his Columbia number, "I Still Miss Someone," as a clickety-clack railroad shuffle.

"When I heard those tapes, it was like opening a window on Cash in the early '60s," says Michael Streissguth, the author of Johnny Cash: The Biography. "By that point, his records on Columbia were very produced, but to hear him at the New River Ranch is to hear him thrown back into Memphis and his Sun sound. It was the elemental Cash. You could hear his later songs done as if they'd been recorded at Sun."

And that's just the tip of the iceberg. Kagarise took more than 700 color slides and recorded more than 1,000 reels of tape, documenting both country stars such as Webb Pierce, Dolly Parton, and the Louvin Brothers and bluegrass greats such as Jimmy Martin, the Stanley Brothers, and Flatt and Scruggs. And it all might have disappeared if not for a chance meeting in 1998 with Joe Lee, the owner of Joe's Record Paradise in Montgomery County (and, for a while, of a branch in Baltimore's Lauraville).

"Another record dealer called me and said, 'I just bought 10,000 78s from this guy in Baltimore, and it looks like he has 150,000 LPs,'" Lee recalls. "I said, 'Great, I'll come up with a truck and a crew.' Tom said, 'No, you have to come alone.' I said, 'Why?' and he said, 'Because you can't fit more than two people in the house.' I thought he was exaggerating, but when Leon opened his door there was only a thin aisle through his piles of stuff. You had to walk like an Egyptian, sideways like a crab, to get to the little area where Leon sat in an armchair, surrounded by his TV, turntable, and reel-to-reel deck."

The albums weren't that interesting--the kind of common items and reissues you find at yard sales--and a disappointed Lee was about to leave when he noticed a pile of reel-to-reel tapes with names on the sides of the boxes like Johnny Cash, the Louvin Brothers and Flatt and Scruggs. He asked to hear the Cash tape.

"I was expecting the worst, because I've heard a lot of homemade tapes recorded on shitty crystal mics," Lee admits. "But the first thing I heard was 'Country Boy,' and I was bowled over. This was so clear--it was like being there. Leon had good equipment and knew what he was doing. He also taped a lot of country TV shows, but he didn't tape them through those crappy TV speakers, he plugged right into the cathode follower in the back of the set. I told Leon, 'I'm not interested in your records, but you have something really valuable with these tapes.'"

They were the ultimate odd couple. Kagarise was a soft-spoken, churchgoing loner who never drank anything stronger than coffee and usually wore a plastic pocket protector. Lee is still a garrulous, agnostic hustler who chain-smokes and prefers T-shirts and shorts. But they shared a passion for traditional country music and bluegrass, and once Kagarise learned that Lee was always going to be honest with him, they formed a partnership to bring these collections to the public. The book came out just after Kagarise died in 2008, though negotiations over the tapes with Columbia Records, Rounder Records, and others have stalled during the music industry's ongoing implosion.

The first area exhibit of Kagarise's photos opened May 20 at the Creative Alliance, and the supersaturated colors of the slides give the photos an aura that's not so much surreal as hyper-real. Porter Wagoner, for example, seems to glow with gold dust when posed against the thick, chocolate waters of the Octoraro Creek. Another shot has Ray Price with his arm around a comely fan; on the backstage steps, a little boy is buttoning his fly, while a red-suited rockabilly band goes at it onstage. In another, Roni Stoneman and her banjo seem to leap off the flat image when she lunges at Kagarise's camera.

The exhibit closes June 4 with a special concert by bluegrass legend Hazel Dickens. Dickens, who moved from the West Virginia coal fields to Baltimore at age 19 in 1954 and stayed until 1968, was part of the pilgrimage to the New River Ranch on Labor Day, 1962, and she went as many other weekends as she could.

"We'd drive up in Mike Seeger's old Chevrolet," she remembers. "And in later years, we'd make a picnic and ask people to eat with us. It was in the woods, and it was real rough looking, but you could walk right up to the stage door and hang out and watch people come and go. That's how I got to meet Bill Monroe. Much later, I was in a little band with Jack Cooke, who'd been with Bill, and we entered a contest there. We should have won, but one of the judges had relatives in another band. Ola Belle Reed was the owner and part of the house band, but she didn't mind standing around and talking to you. A lot of things happened there that you don't see now."

On page 187 of Pure Country, there's a picture of Leon's daughter Judy dancing on stage with her father's favorite act, the Stonemans, at Sunset Park in 1971. Donna Stoneman, dressed in a yellow mini-dress and white go-go boots, is dancing as she plays the mandolin, and young Judy, ringlets in her hair, is glancing backward to copy her hero's steps.

"I wasn't but five or six," Judy Kagarise Ricci says. "That was a great day for me, because I got to go on the Stonemans' bus. Then, Dad lifted me up on stage and I just started dancing. Some kids would cry if you put them on stage, but I was never embarrassed. I loved it. My dad, on the other hand, was shy. He didn't say much, but he communicated through the music he recorded and the photographs he took. Some people are like that."

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