AMERICAN BEAUTIES: Eddie Dean on the downhome country music festival photography of Leon Kagarise (Arthur, 2008)

From Arthur Magazine No. 32 (Dec 2008)…

American Beauties

Leon Kagarise was a teetotaling amateur photographer who captured the bucolic vibes of the now-forgotten country music festivals that flourished along the Mason-Dixon line in the ’50s and ’60s. Award-winning journalist Eddie Dean tells Leon’s story and shares some of his extraordinary photographs in this expanded excerpt from the new book, Pure Country

Country music, at least the kind you hear on the radio, has been a joke for so long now that it’s easy to forget that it was considered a joke even when it was a vital American art form.
The Southern rural culture that gave birth to country music and later begat Elvis was for generations a national joke, ridiculed as a backwater cesspool of poverty and ignorance left behind by a progressive, mainstream America. In the late ’40s and early ’50s, when hillbilly stars like Roy Acuff and Hank Williams and Kitty Wells sold millions of records, most people looked down on country as the music of poor white trash.

By the time Leon Kagarise came of age in the late ’50s, the rock ‘n’ roll revolution engendered a suburban teen culture that likewise rejected the country music that Elvis and so many of rock’s pioneers were raised on. Doubly despised by his parents’ generation and the youth culture of his peers, the country music Leon loved became marginalized and found refuge in the remote outdoor parks where he chronicled its final years as a bonafide American roots music.

For more than a decade, Leon followed the same Sunday ritual: He would attend early-morning service at his local Church of the Brethren outside Baltimore, and then he’d make the hour drive north in his ’49 Plymouth to a pair of country-music parks along the Mason-Dixon Line, New River Ranch in Rising Sun, Maryland and Sunset Park, in Oxford, Pennsylvania.

Armed with a 50-pound Ampex reel-to-reel tape recorder, an Electro-Voice microphone and a Zeiss Ikon 35mm camera, Leon made live recordings and took hundreds of photos. He later said he was simply trying to “save the moments” that gave him an inutterable joy. He was not an artist or even a self-conscious documentarian. He was a country music fan.

What Leon captured with his secondhand camera was a magical time when stars mixed with the faithful with an ease that showed they hadn’t gotten above their raising, and a crucial historical moment when the music was still a grassroots, homegrown phenomenon ignored by mainstream America.

The world Leon documented is long since vanished, but its legacy lives on in bluegrass festivals and other scattered places in the hinterlands where the old-time sounds endure. One of the fans who attended shows at the country-music parks in the early ’60s was the late Jerry Garcia of the Grateful Dead. When he was asked years later about his music heroes, Garcia didn’t hesitate with a response. He said whenever he needed inspiration, he would get as close as he could to the stage and watch Scotty Stoneman take a fiddle solo.

The presence of pilgrims like Garcia underscores the allure and romance of the country-music parks in their heyday. Not only were venues like New River Ranch and Sunset Parks hallowed shrines to see bluegrass heroes such as Bill Monroe, Flatt and Scruggs, and Carter and Ralph Stanley perform onstage, they were gathering places for the legions of amateur musicians and novices like Garcia, a 21-year-old banjo player who made the cross-country trip to Sunset Park from California in a ’61 Corvair.

Some of the finest performances happened out in the parking lot, at the back of an old pick-up truck or around a picnic table, where informal jam sessions sprung up in small colorful clumps like mushrooms after a hard Pennsylvania rain. For most of these amateur musicians, it was as close as they would ever get to the stage at Sunset Park, but it was close enough. This was a picker’s paradise, a chance to shine with a solo and grab a moment of glory to brag about for years back home. “A whole bunch of people would stand around and listen, and they would give requests and some of the music back there was as good or better than what was onstage,” recalled Leon. “Music was everywhere, it just proliferated the whole park.”

The spectators took the music no less seriously. Week after week, the same crowds would congregate from noon until well after darkness, and they would stay until the last note of music.
What Leon found here was a community, an extended family where he felt at home. It was a thriving underground scene, these urban folkies and interlopers mixing with the crowd of farmers and factory workers and displaced Southerners who’d migrated for jobs. Some worked at the munitions plant in Elkton, Maryland, or at the mushroom farms near Kennett Square, Pennsylvania or at the Western Electric plant or Bethlehem Steel in Baltimore. They were hungry not only for work but for the old-time string band music of their native regions.

Both Sunset Park and New River Ranch were humble meccas as befitting their time and place. Open-air wooden stages, rows of sawmill planks on cinderblocks for seats and a day’s entertainment for a thousand or so faithful ready to bust loose after church. There were fortune tellers and concession stands and carnival booths for the youngsters.

For the musicians, these parks offered a pit stop in between the grind of low-lit honky tonks and beer joints and the glare of the Grand Ole Opry. Many made the 750-mile drive from Nashville after a Saturday night appearance, rolling in with just enough time to shave in the car and hit the stage.

All the biggest stars played here: Hank Williams, Roy Acuff, Ernest Tubb, Patsy Cline, Johnny Cash, George Jones. And there were bluegrass greats that Leon loved most, especially the Stoneman Family, as well as hundreds of obscure acts whose biggest taste of fame was earning a billing on a poster for a show at Sunset Park or New River Ranch. Whether greenhorns on their way up, or grayhairs on their way down, they were always welcome out here in the sticks.
Even as the ’60s wore on and country records became slick and larded with orchestral arrangements and background choirs, the shows at these parks celebrated the music in all its raw, pristine beauty. They became ever more crucial gigs for traditional performers who couldn’t get airplay, the ones who toured with their own tight, cracker-jack bands that shunned electric amps and other modern frills, with singers harmonizing around a single microphone.

Old-time country music done the old-time way. That’s the way the crowd liked it and it wasn’t uncommon for hecklers to jeer acts that featured electric bass or drum sets. Acoustic music didn’t get more hardcore than this—right off the back porch and straight from the hollow—presented without affectation. Fans like Leon discovered that even if real country music wasn’t on the radio, it was alive and well at remote outposts like Sunset Park and New River Ranch.
Of all the country performers Leon chronicled with his camera and recorder, the Stonemans remained closest to his heart. In this dysfunctional, poverty-stricken and prodigiously talented clan of displaced Virginia hillbillies, he found a family that won his undying love and devotion second only to his own kin. The Stonemans transformed their ongoing domestic drama into an entertaining and electrifying stage show, making art out of the precarious anarchy of their lives. Leon was not only their most loyal fan, he became a trusted family friend, the only instance where he was able to break through the barrier that always separated him from his idols.

The Stonemans offered Leon all God’s plenty. Spurned by the Nashville establishment (many say it was professional jealousy due to the fact they could out-pick anyone in Music City), the Stonemans always found a home at New River Ranch and Sunset Park.

What moved Leon most was the Stoneman’s never-ending struggle to survive in the cut-throat music business despite their talent and showmanship. “They were the sweetest people in the world and they were very poor,” he said. “They lived in a house for several years that didn’t have a roof. They deserved so much more than what they got, both in money and in fame. But they were just country people, they didn’t know how to behave, they weren’t politically motivated in any way and they didn’t seem to care about the fame or anything. They just enjoyed their music.”

The country roots of the Stonemans were revealed most fully in their comedy routines, brimming with bawdy backwoods banter, a dose of R-rated humor slipped into the park’s G-Rated family entertainment. They especially liked to massacre the latest country hits from the Nashville assembly line; they’d turn a saccharine recitation like Bill Anderson’s “Still,” into a celebration of moonshine stills; most of the routines were straight from the school of outhouse jokes handed down for generations, and many were unabashedly sexual. The usually prudish Leon got a special thrill hearing the Stonemans get down and dirty and let off some steam on-stage. “They could get real raunchy,” he said. “But they were just having fun. The real dirty jokes they did, most of the kids wouldn’t get ‘em anyway.”

The Stonemans were one of many bands that worked the rough hillbilly bars of Washington and Baltimore. The shows at New River Ranch and Sunset Park offered temporary respite from the hell of the honky-tonk nightlife where they scratched out a living The country-music parks offered a sanctuary where, if only for a few hours each Sunday, people tried to live by the Golden Rule. A backstage sign at Sunset Park made it clear the entertainers were held to the same high standards, providing explicit warning to all performers: “No Profanity (Not Even a Hell or Damn) Allowed On This Stage In Any Show. KEEP YOUR SHOWS CLEAN—NO SMUT. Please refrain from cussing backstage as Microphone is always open. Thank You.”

For years the Stonemans performed as the Bluegrass Champs six nights a week at a bar called The Famous, right next door to the Trailways bus station in downtown D.C. Pay was usually $12.50 per band member, but they made more in tips, which were collected in a galvanized trash container, dubbed the “pitch pot.” A sign read: IF YOU DON’T PITCH IN THE POT TONIGHT, TOMORROW YOU MIGHT NOT HAVE A POT TO PITCH IN.”

The regulars at The Famous were mostly servicemen and transients homesick for hillbilly music; a drunken, brawling crowd a far cry from the family picnickers at the open-air parks. On the street outside, hookers plied their trade, while inside fights erupted at the least provocation. Local bluegrass veteran Bill Harrell recalled singing while, a few feet from the stage, a woman threatened her cheating husband by holding a gun to his head and, another time, Harrell nearly drowned an unruly sailor by holding his head in the men’s room toilet.

Donna Stoneman, taught by her brother Scotty to play mandolin “like a man,” was a sight for sore eyes at the Famous, where her admirers were fiercely devoted. One of her fans—a serviceman—was killed on his way back from the bar to the nearby Andrews Air Force Base. In the dead man’s wallet, authorities found a photo of Donna clipped to a $5 bill.
Leon never dared to enter these dark, smoky places. He was a lifelong teetotaler who considered alcohol and tobacco “lethal poisons.” For him, it was enough to meet his idols in the sun-dappled grounds of the parks, where his more innocent vision of country music lent his photos a spiritual radiance. Raised in a church where graven images were forbidden, he became as devout as any Russian icon-maker.

A key element that made Leon’s photos stand out was their brilliant color. Most of the fans strolled the parks with their old Box cameras snapping their tired old black and white pictures. Leon shot everything in color. They were still in Kansas, while he had found his very own Oz. “I saw so many people take so many gosh-awful pictures and I learned from all that,” he said. “I tried to compose before I took the shot. All the pictures had to be dead-level, no weird angles, no tricks.” He studied composition and lighting in photography books. He wanted to improve his technique and figure out how to best capture the images he wanted to preserve. He had the sounds from his reel-to-reel tapes, and he wanted the sights to be every bit as sharp and clear and memorable.

Each trip to the photo store inspired a mixture of dread and exhilaration as Leon sweated to see what he’d shot at the country-music parks. “I’d be trembling driving to the photo shop,” he said. “I couldn’t wait to see my slides every week. It was very exciting. But I would be very critical of myself. I had an overhead projector and I would show the slides on a big screen in the basement, and I was very critical. If I had something a hair off or the light was wrong, I would make sure the next time and correct that. They had to be perfect.”

Looking at the photos a half-century later, it is remarkable how much they do tell us. Some of these phantoms died young, fallen prey to the hard-bitten culture in which they were raised. Others faded into obscurity or retirement. But in Leon’s photos, they are forever young and aglow, as they alighted from their tour buses and walked the grounds in their spangled, glittering Nudie suits like household gods of a lost Golden Age. “I was totally infatuated with these country stars,” he said. ‘They were such important people to me. I considered it an honor to get their picture.”

These tender yet never sentimental photographs—one man’s souvenirs from summer days along the Mason-Dixon Line—capture these American artists in their prime and in their element, playing country music for country people. “I just wanted to save the moment, as much as I could anyhow,” he said. “I was trying in my own little way to stop time. I loved the country stars and their music so much. I didn’t want it to change or ever go away.”

June Carter and Johnny Cash, 1962
In 1961 the Carter Sisters joined the Johnny Cash road show, and it was during this time when June and Johnny became smitten with each other, a chemistry that was for years held in check by Cash’s addiction to pills and booze. During a show that year at Sunset Park, Cash let loose with a garbled, Benzedrine-laced monologue before losing his voice in the last set. In ’62, at New River Ranch, Johnny was in fine fettle in a show that Leon captured on tape and considered one of his best recordings. That night Leon caught the Man in Black and his Woman in White signing autographs for fans. They would eventually marry in 1968.

Ray Price
The ultimate honky-tonker who recorded Night Life, a concept album about tomcatting around ‘til dawn, Ray Price was used to playing dark, smoky dance halls and nightclubs, but he could still hold his own in the white-hot glare of the July sun at the country-music parks. Here he stands resplendent in his Cherokee Cowboy chaps, one hand holding a lit cig and an autograph pen, the other wrapped around an admirer. Ray could always count on the loyalty of his fans to perk him up from the 750-mile, all-night drive from Nashville to New River Ranch. Like he sang in his monster hit: “Crazy arms that reach to hold somebody new.”

Ernest Tubb, 1962
The Texas Troubadour, Ernest Tubb, first played Sunset Park in 1944 and he made it a regular stop along with New River Ranch on his never-ending tour back and forth across the country. His motto was, “Don’t forget the people. They’re the ones that put you here,” and he lived by its words. Though his star was on the wane in the ’60s, he never lost the sparkle that gave his brand of honky-tonk a glow of good will and neighborliness. “His loyalty to his fans was just unheard of,” said Leon. “Some of his shows would go ’til nine o’clock at night or later. It was pitch dark and he had hundreds of miles to go back to Nashville, and there would be a long line of people waiting to get autographs, and his band members were saying, ‘Let’s go, E.,T., let’s go’ but he wouldn’t go. He would stay until the last autograph was signed. That’s how Ernest Tubb was.”

Scotty Stoneman with the Stoneman Family band, 1963
With his battered, sweat-stained fiddle, Scotty Stoneman was one of the era’s most electrifying live performers, a whirling dervish of alcohol-fueled fury and manic hoedowns whose greatest work never made it on record. His on-stage pyrotechnics are the stuff of legend, whether playing “Orange Blossom Special” with a toothpick for a bow or exhausting hapless bandmates with wild solo flights that earned him the title “the bluegrass Charlie Parker” from his biggest fan, Jerry Garcia. A veteran of Washington D.C.’s chicken-wire, razor-totin’ hillbilly bars like The Famous, Scotty was once kidnapped by some drunken toughs who held him hostage and forced him to play all night before releasing him at dawn. Whenever asked how he got the sound that inspired a generation of fiddlers, he’d shrug and say: “I just play lonesome.”

Pop Stoneman, 1963
Ernest “Pop” Stoneman: Country-music pioneer (first-ever version of “The Titanic,” 1925); native of Iron Ridge, Carroll County, Virginia; family patriarch; guitarist; itinerant carpenter; songwriter; mill-hand; autoharp master; railroad section man; instrument maker (inventor of harmonica-holder harness); talent scout; mail clerk; TV quiz-show winner (NBC’s The Big Surprise, 1956) gospel singer; and hero for Leon. “It makes me so mad when I see histories on country music and they always call the Carters ‘the First Family of Country Music,’ because the Stonemans were the first,” said Leon. “Pop was first.” In April 2008, shortly after Kagarise’s death from heart failure, Pop was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame, and in October came a two-CD retrospective Ernest V. Stoneman: The Unsung Father of Country Music.

Hattie Stoneman, 1970
One of the most memorable voices heard on Harry Smith’s landmark Anthology of American Folk Music, Hattie was already married with six children when she coyly refused her courtier’s advances (as sung by husband Ernest) on “The Spanish Merchant’s Daughter,” recorded in 1928. Her 50-year union with Ernest “Pop” Stoneman produced not only seminal records but one of the most talented broods in country-music history. She carried 23 children, gave birth to 15 and all but two played music. Leon shot this portrait at Hattie’s 70th birthday celebration, two years after Ernest’s death in 1968. She still played her banjo in the old-time mountain style she learned as a girl in the hills of southwest Virginia, when she went by the name of Hattie Frost and was courted by a young carpenter named Ernest.

Donna Stoneman, 1966
Donna Stoneman was Leon’s muse, the subject of more of his photos than any performer. His camera found her everywhere on the park grounds: sharing meals with fans, posing with her sister Roni, daydreaming off by herself in a rare moment alone. Most of all, he found her on stage, where she appeared as a vision from on high, literally floating above the floorboards in a display of fancy footwork that mesmerized Leon to the point of obsession. “When she played the mandolin, she danced,” he said. “She couldn’t play without dancing and she would jump in the air a foot. And coincidentally she was one of the best mandolin players who ever lived. I was talking to Bill Monroe at Sunset Park and he said to me that in a contest with the mandolin Donna Stoneman would win against him. He said, ‘Donna’s better than me.’ That was his estimate and Bill Monroe was the King of Bluegrass.”

Hank Snow, 1964
Weighted down with enough pomade to grease an 18-wheeler, Hank Snow once fired a fiddler whose bow nudged his hairpiece off in front of a crowd. Hailing from the squid-jigging grounds of Nova Scotia, the Singing Ranger made his American stage debut at Sunset Park in 1950. For the next decade, Snow enjoyed a steady stream of hits like “I’m Movin’ On,” “The Golden Rocket” and “A Fool Such As I.” He was a small, wiry man with a big booming voice, warm and inviting as an old pot-bellied wood-stove. By the ’60s, he was one of Nashville’s power brokers and ruling elder statesmen, full of bluster and short of temper, especially when it came to his toupee, crowning his head like a coiled anaconda. “But the joke was he was so rich,” said Leon. “You could see a mile away it was a hairpiece. Couldn’t he have gotten a better hairpiece? A better piece of grass?”

Amateur Musicians, 1960s
Here were Mennonites and urbanites, down-home country folk and hipster folkies on weekend trips from Greenwich Village, all come together in the spirit of the music. The communal vibe spilled into the parking lot, close by the fenced-in grave of Sunset Park founder “Uncle” Roy Waltman, where informal jam sessions had local musicians fresh out of the cornfields mixing with counterculture pilgrims such as Jerry Garcia, a young banjoist from California whose dream at the time was to be one of Bill Monroe’s Bluegrass Boys.

Jimmy Martin, c. 1970
Nobody exemplified bluegrass’ high lonesome singing like Jimmy Martin, and he had a mercurial temperament to match the music’s extreme emotional pitch. He never realized his lifelong dream of joining the Grand Ole Opry but he was always welcome at the country-music parks, where his songs seemed to find their proper setting, echoing over the loudspeakers through the trees, out into the ravines and far-off fields and lonely places where men go to cry alone: “I’d give an ocean of diamonds or a world filled with flowers, to hold you closely for just a few hours.”

Leon Kagarise and the Kentucky Mountaineers, c. 1958
In high school, Leon formed a country band, the Kentucky Mountaineers, who hailed not from the hills of the Bluegrass State but from his own Towson neighborhood north of Baltimore. The Mountaineers made some basement recordings and played local dances and barbecues, never daring to venture forth into Baltimore’s rough-and-tough hillbilly bar scene. It wasn’t long before Kagarise set aside his guitar for his reel-to-reel recorder and 35mm camera, the erstwhile picker turned preservationist, barely in his 20s but with a soul as old as Methuselah.

(Adapted and expanded from Pure Country: The Leon Kagarise Archives 1961-1971, (c) 2008 Daniel 13/Process Media.

Categories: Arthur No. 32 (web-only, Dec 2008), Eddie Dean | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

About Jay Babcock

I am an independent writer and editor based in Tucson, Arizona. In 2023: I publish an email newsletter called LANDLINE = Previously: I co-founded and edited Arthur Magazine (2002-2008, 2012-13) and curated the three Arthur music festival events (Arthurfest, ArthurBall, and Arthur Nights) (2005-6). Prior to that I was a district office staffer for Congressman Henry A. Waxman, a DJ at Silver Lake pirate radio station KBLT, a copy editor at Larry Flynt Publications, an editor at Mean magazine, and a freelance journalist contributing work to LAWeekly, Mojo, Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, Vibe, Rap Pages, Grand Royal and many other print and online outlets. An extended piece I wrote on Fela Kuti was selected for the Da Capo Best Music Writing 2000 anthology. In 2006, I was somehow listed in the Music section of Los Angeles Magazine's annual "Power" issue. In 2007-8, I produced a blog called "Nature Trumps," about the L.A. River. From 2010 to 2021, I lived in rural wilderness in Joshua Tree, Ca.

2 thoughts on “AMERICAN BEAUTIES: Eddie Dean on the downhome country music festival photography of Leon Kagarise (Arthur, 2008)

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