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.

April 18, 2000|By Carl Schoettler | Carl Schoettler,SUN STAFF

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.

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