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PURE COUNTRY; With one-of-a-kind recordings and photos of early stars, Leon Kagarise holds the golden key to an ear of down-home music before commercialism changed its tune.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

The photos of country music stars in their youth flash from the projector onto the screen like snatches of recovered memory.

"I was trying in my own little way to stop time, if you will," says Leon Kagarise, his voice a bit wistful.

"Stop time," he repeats.

He started taking the pictures in the late 1950s when he was young, too. He's 62 now, but still buoyantly youthful when he talks about country music.

"I loved the music so much," he says, "and I loved the people so much, the stars. I didn't want it ever to change, or go away."

Johnny Cash appears on the screen smiling and handsome, already the Man in Black, but without the worn lumpy face that looks like a range of Appalachian hills.

"The guy looks like he's 22 years old," Kagarise says.

Kagarise, who lives in Olde Hillendale in Baltimore County, is up at Joe Lee's place out in Mount Airy showing off his photos and recordings. He and Lee sit on the porch, jawing about country music like a couple of farmers pausing on the steps at some Clinch Mountain courthouse. They're partners in exploiting Kagarise's collection.

For each of the 400 photos he took, Kagarise has a couple hundred tapes and records. He figures he has maybe 100,000 now, down from his peak of 150,000.

"So now I only have a small collection," he deadpans.

His hoard is stashed in two Baltimore County homes he owns. Both are full, packed, crammed, loaded, bursting with photographs, tapes and records. And they're almost all pure, unadulterated country -- "before the poison hit," his impression of the contemporary crossover Nashville sound.

They're like a cache of unknown Picassos. That's why folk art studies scholars from the Library of Congress came out to Lee's house to listen to the tapes and look at the pictures. That's why the Country Music Foundation is interested. And that's why a record label is negotiating a deal.

Many of the recordings are unique. He taped Johnny Cash live in 1962, for example, long before "Live at Folsom," the 1968 LP that country music encyclopedias consider Cash's first live album.

"We've got him doing 'Rock Island Line' a million miles an hour," says Lee, who's the proprietor of Joe's Record Paradise in Rockville, a mecca for Washington-area collectors for about 25 years.

"And he spits those words out so clear," Kagarise says. "He could never have done that in '68. He couldn't achieve that."

Even in 1962, Cash was having troubles with the pills that would eventually take their toll on his voice and style.

Rare local TV shows

Lee first learned of Kagarise about two years ago from an old friend, Tom Hoskins, who rediscovered seminal bluesman Mississippi John Hurt. Lee remembers Hoskins calling and saying, " 'Come on up here to Baltimore. We're buying 78s and this guy's got about a million LPs. But you can't bring anybody with you.' 'Why can't I bring anybody with me?' 'Won't fit into the house.'

"So I come up all alone, cussing all the way. Then I squeeze in the place. There's these little slim aisles. You walk like a crab to get to one room. There are rooms totally inaccessible."

Kagarise laughs and says: "I'm a collector of everything. My problem is that I save everything. You know, when you save everything and you get to be 62 years old, you start to get full. Well, I got full 20 years ago."

Perhaps the rarest recordings in his collection are the old country music TV shows he taped. He put a a big antenna on the roof with a directional rotor and he pulled in stations from Lancaster, Pa., to Washington.

"I would tweak that thing until the sound would get exactly perfect and I'd leave it there," he says. He soldered a line into the audio circuit on his set and got better sound on his recordings than came out of the speakers. Unfortunately, he didn't get the picture.

"I used to record the old TV shows," he says. " 'Jimmy Dean Show.' 'Porter Waggoner Show.' 'Jim and Jesse Show,' 'Judy Lynn Show,' 'Don Owens TV Jamboree' out of Washington, I taped all those shows. And we're finding more and more as we search, nobody's got them. Even the Library of Congress finds very little of this stuff in existence."

Lee says: "The best of what he's got and the most revealing are the little local shows out of D.C. or Pennsylvania, like the 'Don Owens Jamboree,' which has got to be the best music show ever on TV. They were pre-video tape. They blew 'em out live. Without Leo, gone forever."

Early techie

Himself a premature techie with extraordinary electronic skills, Kagarise started taping country music live at the oldtime ranches and parks and off live TV shows when he was about 18.

Kagarise, who likes to say you pronounce his name "keg o' rice" like "keg o' beer," graduated from Towson High School in the mid-1950s and went right to work at the High Fidelity House, a cutting-edge electronics shop just below Deepdene on Roland Avenue. He had a talent for electronics and learned a lot from his father, who had come down from Martinsburg, Pa., where Leon was born, to work at Bendix Radio.

Leon repaired amplifiers and tape recorders and recorded political events and things such as the dedication of the organ at the Cathedral of Mary Our Queen. He installed hi-fi systems for the Hecht family and for Milton Eisenhower when he was president of the Johns Hopkins University. He ran sound for Joan Baez, Merle Travis and Thelonius Monk at Shriver Hall on the Hopkins campus.

None of that disparate trio would let him tape them. But he does have engaging backstage photos of the young Baez.

"So doing these things I learned about recording. Working at the High Fidelity House, I had access to the finest [recording] machine around at that time, which was an Ampex reel-to-reel.

"I had access to that for wholesale price so I could afford one of those. I had a $100 Electrovoice microphone." He still uses it.

The music he recorded with it is clear, clean, crisp and quintessentially country.

"I would set the mike -- a floor stand mike -- onstage in close proximity to the house mike and, heck, I got beautiful recordings. ... I got the same sound the audience was hearing."

Down home and authentic

Even though he buys an occasional record at a yard sale, Kagarise is starting to dismantle his trove, but very, very slowly it seems. He's sold off most of his 78s and 45s. He thinks. You still find stacks of 45s in his house. He's had some doozies, too.

"About everything ever made" by Gid Tanner and the Skillet Lickers, he says, by way of example. They were "the most popular of the all the old-time string bands of the 1920s," reports Barry McCloud's country music encyclopedia.

"This is pure down-home mountain music," Kagarise says.

"Where the music didn't really change for hundred of years, it seems," Lee says, "these guys were the end of that. Now it all changes so much and so quickly people lose sight of what music was."

"That's what makes this music so real," Kagarise says. "It wasn't slickified at all. It wasn't amplified. It wasn't distorted."

"The Nashville Sound," he says, "as far as I'm concerned, pretty much ruined country music as we know it from the early days. Nowadays they all sound the same. You don't hear the banjos ringing. You don't hear the guitar licks.

"What you hear is primarily the electronics and it has nothing to do with country music as we know it. And it's for one main reason: So it will cross over the charts. The loud, prominent drums: bam bam bam bam. You don't hear any bam bam bam bam in this stuff.

"Once you use percussion, you start to stray from the pure country style."

In the 1960s and '70s, Kagarise trolled through the hollows of southwestern Virginia for records and came up with most of the oeuvre of Uncle Dave Macon, who endeared himself to the earliest Grand Ole Opry listeners with songs such as "Hill Billie Blues," "Keep My Skillet Good and Greasy" and "The Bible's True," about the Scopes Monkey Trial.

"I had a huge Carter family collection," he says, "possibly half the Carter Family records ever made."

A. P. Carter (a churchy singer and fiddler), his wife Sara (who played autoharp) and their cousin May Belle (who first played the "Carter lick" on the guitar) were the original Carter family. They first recorded in 1927. June Carter, Johnny Cash's wife, was Mother May Belle's daughter.

Another Kagarise favorite -- Ernest "Pop" Stoneman -- was a real country pioneer, maybe 70 when Kagarise recorded him and his family at places such as New River Ranch near Rising Sun, Sunset Park in southern Pennsylvania and Dairyland in Jessup.

The New River Ranch, off Route 1 in Cecil County, he says, "just had a $75 stage and big wooden planks on top of cinder blocks [for spectators] and that's the whole place. ... Back in the woods, no cover. The whole thing couldn't have cost more than $200."

He recorded lots of the Stonemans there. Pop Stoneman played mostly autoharp, but also guitar, harmonica and clawhammer banjo. His first hit was the "Sinking of the Titanic" in 1924, just a year after the first country music recording by Fiddling' John Carson. Pop even helped in the first recording of the Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers, the Singing Brakeman. He loves the whole clan and thinks Pop should have been in the Country Music Hall of Fame long ago.

Kagarise has photos of practically the whole Stoneman family, especially Donna and Roni, both pretty and perky and always smiling, both turned out in those country girl singer dresses with full skirts, lots of petticoats, narrow waists and peasant tops.

In his picture at New River lots of kids are sitting on stage, at the feet of folks like Johnny Cash.

"See nowadays the stars aren't real. The stars wear makeup. The stars are totally, completely apart from the audience in every way. You can't go touch them. You can't go talk to them. You can't get their autograph.

"They're up there and sometimes you have to wear a spyglass to see the darn people. Even though you've spent $30 to get in. Then the stars and the people were on an equal basis, and the stars seemed to love it.

"The stars were real people," he says. "Country people."

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