O Brother, Where Art the Sunsets of Yesteryear?
by Eddie Dean
If your car has trouble or you lose your way
They came in pickup trucks and station wagons and whatever would carry them, packed full of family. They came in horse-and-buggies from nearby Amish country. They came in buses from Philadelphia, 40 miles up the old US 1. A high school dropout and 21-year-old banjo-picker named Jerry Garcia came in a '61 Corvair all the way from California.
For more than half a century, every Sunday from spring to fall, country music fans congregated at Sunset Park, just above the Mason-Dixon Line in southern Chester County. Long before country went mainstream, Sunset provided an outlet for hillbilly music at a time when hillbilly was still a term of disparagement. It was a bona fide underground scene, these farmers and factory workers and displaced Southerners whooping it up in the Pennsylvania sticks while the rest of America went bowling.
Sunset Park was a humble mecca, as befitting its place and time. An open-air stage in a grove of trees, rows of sawmill planks on cinderblocks for seats, and a day's entertainment for a few thousand faithful itching to bust loose after church.
There were carnival booths and concession stands for the youngsters, and bingo for those who didn't care for fiddles and banjos. For the musicians, Sunset offered a pit stop in between the grind of low-lit honky-tonks and the glare of the Grand Ole Opry. Many made the 750-mile drive from Nashville after a Saturday night Opry appearance, rolling into Sunset Park with just enough time to knock off their whiskers in the dressing room and hit the stage.
All the biggest stars played here--Roy Acuff, Ernest Tubb, Lefty Frizzell, Patsy Cline, George Jones, Johnny Cash, Dolly Parton. In '51, Hank Williams came in his Cadillac, his wife, Audrey, riding shotgun in her cowgirl duds. He performed for $900--big money at the time--and returned twice the next year.
Sunset regulars also included old-time legends like Bill Monroe, the Stanley Brothers, Flatt and Scruggs, the Stoneman Family and other bluegrass greats. And there were hundreds of obscure acts whose biggest taste of fame was earning billing on a poster for a Sunset Park show. Whether greenhorns on their way up or grayhairs on the way down, they were always welcome at Sunset.
"Those were the glory days of country music," says Lawrence Waltman, former operator of the park. "We'd never seen it before and I don't think we'll ever see it again."
On a recent afternoon, Waltman, an 83-year-old with a laborer's build and a John Deere wristwatch, walked the grounds of the park, still intact six years after its demise. The eight-acre site is on the family farm near West Grove, now surrounded by new townhouses and encroaching development.
Just last week workers tore down the dairy barn. At the park entrance is a piece of ground no bulldozer will ever breach, the fenced-in grave of Waltman's father "Uncle" Roy, who started Sunset in 1940.
The Depression forced Roy to find extra sources of income besides dairy farming, and he came up with the idea for Sunset after a visit to the C Bar C Ranch in Everson, Pa. The area then was a nexus for newcomers from the South who migrated here for jobs on farms in the '20s and '30s, and later at defense plants during the war years. They were hungry not only for work but for the string-band music of their native regions.
"The people in the upper part of Pennsylvania wanted polka and stuff like that," says Waltman. "Our crowd wanted the Southern-type music, the bluegrass and the Nashville country."
This was the first time this fiercely local sound was exported to new environs. Like kudzu, it not only survived, it thrived. Some of the transplants formed their own bands. In the '40s, Sunset's house band was the North Carolina Ridge Runners, which included mandolin player Hazel Flannary. In 1943, Hazel married Lawrence Waltman.
Sunset was built to last, literally: The stage, constructed of tongue-and-groove fir by local Amish carpenters, required only one major remodeling job. That was in the '40s, when Uncle Roy enlarged it to make way for an 18-foot ring for wrestling matches.
Back then, the park's entertainment included novelty and vaudeville acts booked by the Jolly Joyce Theatrical Agency in Philadelphia: animal acts and skating duos and dancing troupes; comedians and magicians and acrobats like Dare-devil Duffy, who jumped off a pole with a bungee cord. There was Little Ashley, "the world's smallest midget," and Smokey and Henry, a blackface team from Reading. Cowboy crooners like Tex Ritter were big draws early on, and later, Channel 6 TV personalities Chief Halftown and Sally Starr--a regular on the Hayloft Hoedown from the old Town Hall in Center City--attracted loyal fans from around the Philadelphia area.
Wilma Lee and Stoney Cooper
But it was the music that made Sunset Park one of the premier places outside Nashville to see country performers close up and in the flesh, often for the first time. Hank Snow, the Singing Ranger from Nova Scotia, made his U.S. debut at Sunset, courtesy of Philly promoter and record-store owner Jack Howard. The headliner did three shows a day, as did the supporting acts, a bargain compared to the arena package tours that allowed barely enough time to dash off a few hits and bolt for the exit.
A bargain at $1 a show, the marathon schedule gave locals a chance to take care of chores. "The farmers would come and see the afternoon show," says Waltman," then go home and milk the cows and eat supper, and come back to see the night show."
At Sunset, the stars played in the old way--banjos ringing, fiddles whining, steel guitars moaning. Even as the '60s wore on, and country records became slick and larded with orchestral arrangements and background choirs and session hacks, the concerts at Sunset showcased the music in its raw, pristine beauty. These were small, tight homegrown bands that shunned electric amps and other modern frills, with singers harmonizing around a single microphone. That's the way the crowd liked it, and it wasn't uncommon for hecklers to jeer acts that featured a drum set.
Acoustic music didn't get more hardcore than this--right off the back porch and straight from the hollow--presented without affectation, the sort of unadorned rural strains you hear on the soundtrack to O Brother, Where Art Thou?, whose status as a two-million seller is a testament to traditional country's staying power.
"This was where you saw the real show," says Leon Kagarise, who
first visited Sunset in the late '50s as a wide-eyed teenager from Baltimore.
"They weren't afraid to do the songs that weren't as well known. The audience
would ask for ones they hadn't done in years, and they'd do them. And
there'd be people crying because the songs meant so much to them."
Kagarise, a retired electronics technician, spent the next decade chronicling the park, bringing along his family and a 50-pound Ampex reel-to-reel tape recorder in his '49 Plymouth. Kagarise recorded entire shows--including onstage banter and the hawking of souvenirs and songbooks--in an era when live recordings of hillbilly music were as rare as hen's teeth. (Bill Monroe was the only performer who wouldn't allow Kagarise to record.)
The tapes capture the informal, festive atmosphere of Sunset, and artists at the top of their craft, unbeholden to commercial trends. Kagarise also took candid photos of the stars, not only onstage but relaxing in the crowd. The result--hours upon hours of tape and hundreds of color slides--is more than the labor of love of an obsessed fan. It is a vital document of a lost world, enough so that the Library of Congress is interested in obtaining the collection.
Of the many shows Kagarise attended, several were especially memorable: a rail-thin, ragged Johnny Cash backed by the Tennessee Two in 1962, as the Man in Black unleashed a rambling, methed-up monologue to a startled crowd. Nonetheless Cash gave a stellar performance, and Kagarise has the tape to prove it. Then there was the time in the mid-'60s when Dolly Parton, then a young starlet of the Porter Wagoner show, debuted her classic, "Coat of Many Colors," about growing up poor in the Tennessee hills.
"She was very, very country back then," says Kagarise. "She sat down on a stool and played solo, just Dolly and her guitar. It was very emotional. There wasn't a dry eye in the crowd." (The tape of this show was later stolen from Kagarise's home by a Parton fanatic and former friend of Kagarise's.)
Dearest of all to Kagarise were the many shows by his favorites, the Stoneman Family, whose patriarch Ernest "Pop" Stoneman, had recorded country music's first million- seller, "The Sinking of the Titanic" in 1924. Pop and his wife Hattie, who played banjo, had nearly two dozen children, and by the '60s, the Stoneman clan boasted some of country's greatest virtuosos, including Scotty on fiddle and Donna on mandolin. Sometimes the family members formed a circle, trading instruments down the line until each member had taken a turn, never missing a beat. Spurned by the Nashville establishment (many say it was professional jealously, due to the fact that they could outpick anyone in Music City), the Stonemans always found a home at Sunset.
Backstage sign at Sunset Park, 1961
There were other country music parks: the Sante Fe Ranch, Musselmans Grove, Ravine Park, Sleepy Hollow Ranch and Cripple Creek in Pennsylvania; the Gloryland Campground in Bear, Del.; Watermelon Park in Berryville, Va., and the New River Ranch, a few miles south on Highway 1 in Rising Sun, Md.
New River Ranch was typically primitive, not much more than a makeshift stage on the edge of a creek in the woods, with a couple of outhouses shared by performers and fans alike. During a '61 show, a swarm of yellow jackets attacked the Stanley Brothers. "Get the DDT!" wisecracked Ralph, now the unlikely star of the O Brother phenomenon, as they forged on with their mournful mountain music.
When George Jones played here, he got raging drunk and fired his band during the performance. He then stomped offstage and demanded a telephone so he could fire his manager in Nashville, only to be told there was no phone on site.
Compared to New River and other outdoor venues, Sunset Park stood alone, whether for the facilities, which boasted backstage dressing rooms, or a management known for running a class operation. "I can't remember anything bad ever happening at Sunset," says Ric Nelson, a dobroist who backed up Patsy Cline and others in the late '50s.
At Watermelon Park down in Virginia and some places, there were shootings and knifings and you name it--it could get pretty wicked. But those weren't in the same league as Sunset. There was something about the park that made you be a different person when you were there. Part of it was the family-picnic type of environment, and the Waltmans were real gems to work for. Plus, it's such pretty country up there, so clean and nice."
Sunset Park was where you put on your game face: The hell- raising Cline may have played firehalls and such in red shorts ("I mean short-shorts," says Nelson), but at Sunset she was on her best behavior, garbed in the fancy cowgirl dresses her mother sewed for her back home in Winchester.
"Sunset was really the Cadillac of them all," says Eddie Stubbs, who frequented the park in the '80s as a fiddler for the Maryland bluegrass band, the Johnson Mountain Boys. He says the kitchen made the best chicken-corn soup he ever had, and he considers performing here a highlight of his career.
"Getting to headline a show at Sunset Park where all my heroes had played, getting to walk on that stage, that was an almost sacred experience," says Stubbs, now an announcer for the Grand Ole Opry. "It was all about the music and all about the bands--people really connected with the bands."
That intimacy was what made Sunset Park special. At a time when country stars were held in reverence by their fans, when they resembled gods all-aglitter in spangled Nudie suits, they in turn mingled in the crowd with the ease of relatives at a family reunion. "There was no place to hide," recalls Roni Stoneman banjoist for the Stoneman Family, "unless you wanted to sit in your bus all day. People'd say, 'Ya'll c'mon over and sit with us.' Just like old friends and neighbors." And yet, even as the performers proved they hadn't gotten above their raising, their mystique remained untarnished, and the Sunset crowd wouldn't have had it any other way.
Here was Hank "I'm movin' on" Snow in dark shades, turquoise boots and enough pomade to grease an 18-wheeler; West Virginian Stoney Cooper in a blinding white suit and bolo tie like a campground preacher gone uptown, his wife Wilma Lee (Hank Williams' favorite female country singer) strumming her rhythm guitar over a hoop skirt and high heels and belting out murder ballads like "Poor Ellen Smith"; the former Julius Kuczynski, an accordion-wielding Pole from Wisconsin who transformed himself into Pee Wee King and his Golden West Cowboys; and Kitty Wells, the queen of country music, holding court in pearls and a sky-blue gingham dress.
Even the biggest stars gave autographs and posed for pictures well past closing time. Waltman recalls holding a flashlight while Charley Pride signed programs in the darkness after a show. "At that time the entertainers didn't think they were the big shots they think they are today," says Waltman. "They were big shots to the people, but they would sign autographs until the last person was there. Tubb was great for that--his motto was: 'Don't forget the people. They're the ones that put you here.'"
One Kagarise photo shows the tall, lanky Texas Troubadour--a honky-tonk
vampire of a thousand midnight buckets of blood--stooped over the backstage
rail in the noonday glare to sign for fans attired in their Sunday best.
For banjoist Roni Stoneman, Sunset, with its strict no-alcohol policy, was a welcome retreat from the bars of the Washington, D.C., country scene where she scraped out a living in the '50s and '60s. Here she could work unfettered by the drunks and toughs, trying out comedy routines that later served her well as a regular on the Hee Haw TV show. "Sunset Park was my classroom," she says. "I knew if I could entertain those Amish kids and get their okay, I could make it anywhere."
The outdoor setting made Sunset vulnerable to the weather and critters, from birds nesting above the stage to pests of all sorts. The park was open rain or shine, and the covered stage and pavilion enclosed by a Quonset-style roof made for some memorable shows.
"We played there once when it was raining real hard,'' says Stubbs. "It sounded like golf balls coming down on that tin roof."
After Uncle Roy died in 1957, Waltman and his wife Hazel operated the park, which flourished despite the rise of rock 'n' roll and other mass-market entertainment. In the '60s, when country softened its sound to reach the pop mainstream, Sunset became a crucial pit stop for traditional artists who couldn't get airplay.
City hipsters soon discovered that even if real country music wasn't on the radio anymore, it was alive and well at Sunset. "To most urbanites, it was just hillbilly music, and you didn't even admit to listening to that stuff," recalls Ric Nelson. "So at Sunset it was still mostly a rural crowd, but a lot of middle-class suburban kids started showing up, and they were mesmerized by the music."
Documentarian and musician John Cohen often made the drive
from Washington Square in New York City out to Sunset Park in the late
'50s. A friend of Kerouac and the Beats, the Yale graduate had started
his own old-time band, the New Lost City Ramblers, and he was hungry for
the real thing. Like Kagarise, Cohen took photos at Sunset, where he found
a cultural crossroads far from mainstream America.
"The ambiance was just amazing," he says. "It was one of the first times that city people and country people were really meeting on the country people's terms, and that was a big adventure. The thing you have to remember is that bluegrass was considered very avant garde at that time. It was not at all known in the city. It was looked down upon, and it wasn't part of the consciousness of the folk revival. That came later."
He recalls talking about his love for bluegrass with a Nashville insider at the Folklore Center in New York. The sneering reply was, "Oh, that's just music for farmers at six in the morning."
For Cohen and his fellow bluegrass fanatics, that was the only music that mattered.
In the spring of '64, Sunset pilgrim Jerry Garcia made a cross-country car trip east from Palo Alto, Ca. The young banjoist was tracking down the sources of the bluegrass records that had converted him for life. In the parking lot at Sunset, where pickers gathered to trade licks, Garcia met a fellow acolyte, David Grisman, a mandolin whiz from New Jersey.
"Back then, we were all on a quest, searching out that 'high lonesome sound' of Bill Monroe, Flatt and Scruggs, the Stanley Brothers and other idols," recalled Grisman in the liner notes to his 1973 collaboration with Garcia, Old & in the Way. The motley crowd at Sunset made an impression on Grisman, who later told a Garcia biographer, "There were a lot of Amish people there in black vests and regular people from that area, and then there'd be us, these people from the cities who'd discovered this music."
Many of the traditional songs Garcia heard at Sunset later found their way into the repertoire of the Grateful Dead, whose concerts tapped into the underground spirit that he and Grisman found here. Though in some ways the hippie culture epitomized by the Dead couldn't be further from the rural, working-class milieu of Sunset Park, the two scenes shared a communal vibe that fostered good will and fellowship.
The Waltmans often hosted musicians in their house next to the park. Sometimes Hazel would fry ham and eggs for those with gigs the next day in Baltimore or Philly or farther north. Jimmy Martin--the hard-living, booze-loving, self-described King of Bluegrass--made his usual request--fresh milk bottled up to go. "He always had to have some milk straight from the barn," says Waltman. The Wilburn Brothers once tried to catch some sleep in a spare bedroom after arriving exhausted from 30th Street Station--until the chiming of the grandfather clock scared the bejeezus out of them.
This sort of camaraderie extended into the community as well. Ray Myers was a local who worked at the Trojan Boatworks factory in nearby Lancaster. Born without arms, Myers could play steel guitar with his feet, and Waltman featured him onstage for years as a novelty act, "The Armless Wonder."
"He'd smoke cigarettes with his toes, saw wood, drive nails, take the cap off a bottle of soda and drink it," recalls Waltman fondly. "He'd say, 'If you wanna see me drive after the show, come on over!' and he'd get his car and drive in circles around the park. He was a great little act and he couldn't have been a nicer fellow."
Even the rival parks helped each other out. Once when a featured performer canceled at the last minute, the Waltmans asked the owners of New River Ranch if they could borrow their headliners for an appearance at Sunset. Charlie and Ira Louvin, one of the most esteemed brother duets in country music history, agreed to perform three shows at New River and three at Sunset Park--in the same day.
Though he became a longtime friend of many celebrities, Waltman remained an ardent, often star-struck fan, whether it was watching Grandpa Jones discard his false mustache because it kept falling off in the August humidity, or helping get medical attention for Conway Twitty after he had a kidney-stone attack just before showtime. For Waltman, zipping up Dolly Parton's dress backstage was "the thrill of a lifetime." This was before she could afford a personal hairdresser in her entourage.
The largest crowd in park history was for a late '80s show by Randy Travis, when the young honky-tonker was bringing traditional country back to the charts and the radio. Travis broke the attendance record previously set by Conway Twitty and Loretta Lynn, and the massive crowd--more than double the usual turnout--had Waltman scrambling to make room: "We had people parked clean across the road in the hayfields, and that breaks a farmer's heart, but I said, 'Those cars are more important than that hay.'"
Business was good for Sunset right into its sixth decade, and when it closed in '95, the annual mailing list included more than 18,000 customers from 48 states and Canada. By then, though, the park's time had clearly passed. The country music industry had grown into another niche of the entertainment empire, peddling soft-rock crud with a manufactured twang to a suburban demographic that didn't know any better. Waltman couldn't afford to book the new stars anyway, what with their 20-page contract riders and arena-sized egos.
The neon sign emblazoned with a Martin guitar still stands on the side of the highway, but Sunset Park's days are numbered. Soon a Lutheran retirement community will find a home on the site, and Waltman hopes to preserve the stage for special events. Whatever happens to the buildings, the music that once rang out here has endured to influence another generation, just as it inspired Garcia and his peers.
The recent revival in traditional country music--whether young bands paying homage or veterans like Dolly Parton returning to their roots--shows no signs of abating. In the wake of O Brother's runaway success, record companies are keen on releasing CDs of Kagarise's taped shows, and the PBS series American Roots Music, beginning this week, mines similar territory to bring the old-time sounds to a new audience. A Washington, D.C., filmmaker is working on a documentary about the park's history, and John Cohen's new collection of photographs, "There Is No Eye," features stark black-and-white portraits of Sunset and New River Ranch that reveal these places in an artistic, even transcendental, light. Along with Kagarise's work, they bear witness to the glory days of Sunset Park and country music that may be gone but has not been forgotten.
Eddie Dean last wrote for Philadelphia Weekly about the moonshine trade in Philadelphia.
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