Ernest Tubb signs autographs between performances at Sunset Park in 1963. He was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame two years later.
Leon Kagarise's home is filled with thousands of tapes he's collected over a period of nearly 50 years.
Courtesy Leon Kagarise
A young Leon Kagarise shows off a hi-fi set he built in the mid-1950s.
Courtesy Leon Kagarise
Fifty years ago, a young recording engineer named Leon Kagarise indulged his passion for country music by dragging his bulky tape recorder to outdoor music festivals in rural Maryland.
His collection now includes thousands of live recordings from the golden years of country and bluegrass music.
Kagarise captured rising stars like Johnny Cash, George Jones, and the Stanley Brothers as they played all-day concerts at rural music parks with names like New River Ranch and Sunset Park. Fans paid $1 per carload to get in. Families would invite the performers to join them around crowded picnic tables as barbecue grills smoked nearby.
Leon Kagarise was a teenager then. Now he's 65. NPR's John Ydstie finds him in the back room of a Baltimore, Md., record store where he repairs audio equipment part-time. As Kagarise plays a tape of the Stanley Brothers performing "Ride That Midnight Train" at New River Ranch in Maryland, he remembers the day in 1961 when he made the recording.
"It was totally raw and totally open and in my recordings you can hear birds singing, you hear people talking during the thing... it was just, it's wonderful," Kagarise says.
The young fan set his microphone up next to the house mic on stage, turned on his machine and wandered off to take pictures and listen to the music. The musicians weren't worried about fans making bootleg copies. They often helped Kagarise set-up his heavy reel-to-reel Ampex tape recorder.
He says he wasn't thinking of posterity when he made the recordings. "I just... I loved the music so I wanted to save it all. It had nothing to do with me being a sound engineer or anything else. I just liked the music and wanted to preserve it as much as I could."
What Kagarise preserved was something extremely rare — high-quality recordings of live country music from the 1950s and '60s performed in its most natural setting. But until recently almost nobody knew the tapes existed.
Kagarise has kept his recordings in his home near Baltimore, Md. "There is not much room to live in here," Ydstie says. "It looks like the bedroom of a thousand teenage boys. There are piles and piles of collectibles: antique radios, magazines, records, wind-up Victrolas and reel-to-reel tapes."
Joe Lee owns the used record store where Leon Kagarise now has his workshop. Lee knocked on Kagarise's door a couple of years ago. He'd heard that Kagarise might have some old records to sell. "What Joe Lee stumbled into was a treasure trove of recordings buried in junk," Ydstie says.
Lee says it was hard to miss the "stacks and stacks of reel-to-reel tapes. And I plucked one off of the top there and it says, 'Johnny Cash Live in Maryland 1962.' And I said, 'Mr. Kagarise, can we listen to this?' And I expected it to be terrible because I've heard live tapes from back then and nobody had good equipment. And my God did it sound good."
Lee and Kagarise have decided to work together to try to sell the recordings. The Library of Congress, the Country Music Hall of Fame and even some major record labels have expressed interest. Lee says the two men are committed to introducing a new generation of fans to the recordings... to what they say is the unfettered essence of country music captured in the outdoor music parks of rural Maryland.
"You know, these [performers] were people from the mountains and from the rural South," Lee says. "And once they were put in a studio, and they had a producer looking down at their snoot at the guy. And an engineer telling them, 'Well, if you make one mistake, we have to stop and start all over again.' It lost the atmosphere. It's like trying to play guitar in a straightjacket on... It's sort of like being in the zone. When you're really at ease, when there's no intimidation factor, then it really soars. And the proof is in these tapes here."