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(Enlarge) Advertisements for locally popular country music parks New River Ranch near Rising Sun and Sunset Park near Oxford, Pa., regularly appeared in The Aegis in the 1950s and 1960s, including the trio above from the summer of 1963. Photographs and recordings from the two parks are featured in an exhibit "The Way We Was: The Leon Kagarise Archives 1961-1971" appearing at The Patterson gallery in Baltimore through Saturday. (Nicole Munchel | Aegis staff)

If you were around Harford County in the 1960s, the chances are good that you or your parents would have made the short drive up Route 1 some summer weekend to hear country music at its finest played live at one of the area's two music parks, New River Ranch near Rising Sun or Sunset Park near Oxford, Pa.

If you're not old enough to have been part of the scene, you've probably heard stories about the parks from relatives or friends who saw the likes of Johnny Cash, Hank Snow, George Jones, Kitty Wells, Ray Price, Flatt and Scruggs, Bill Monroe and the Bluegrass Boys or the Stanley Brothers perform at either park. Often for just $1 a person — children under 12 admitted free — fans could take in an afternoon and evening of what most of us today call "classic country." In those days, it probably was just "country and western."

The life of the traveling country show, both for the performers and their fans, has been captured anew in an exhibit of the photographs and recordings of the late Leon Kagarise, a lifetime Baltimore resident who extensively photographed the concerts at New River Ranch and Sunset Park during their heyday in the 1960s. "The Way We Was: The Leon Kagarise Archives 1961-71" opened May 20 and runs through Saturday at the Patterson, the former movie house turned art gallery at 3134 Eastern Ave. in Baltimore's Highlandtown neighborhood. "The Way We Was" is presented by Creative Alliance at the Patterson and is part of the organization's Urban/Appalachia series which explores the cultural migration from the mountain country to cities like Baltimore that peaked following World War II. Many of today's Harford County residents are products of that migration, especially from the 1930s to the 1950s.

Parks like New River Ranch, which billed itself as "Maryland's Little Nashville" and Sunset Park flourished at a time when the country music genre had not yet become the mega-sound it would beginning with the 1970s and beyond. Performers, a few traveling in buses that would hardly be mistaken for the tour bus circa 2010, the others in their personal automobiles, played on an informal summer park circuit along the East Coast. One performer described the "river" at New River Ranch (actually Octoraro Creek which flowed behind the makeshift stage) as a "copperhead infested tributary" of the Susquehanna River.

When Cash and wife-to-be June Carter appeared at New River Ranch over a Labor Day weekend in the early '60s, his career was in flux and she was touring with him in an effort to straighten him out from his pill addictions. Although the window posters gave him a top billing — "from Hollywood, Calif." — the man in black was still five years away from his groundbreaking prison tour and the successful weekly television show that helped put country into the mainstream. His band was billed as "The Tennessee Two."

To call these places "rustic" would be kind. Seating was among trees on boards placed across cinder blocks. The stages were small; the acoustics airy. Most, though not all, of the instruments — guitars, mandolins, fiddles, Dobros, upright basses — were unamplified, so soloists usually would step up to a single microphone when it was their time. There were concession shacks — hot dogs, snow cones, cotton candy, souvenirs, soft drinks. The parks typically did not allow consumption of alcoholic beverages.

The upside was the freshness and spontaneity of the performances and the nearness of the performers themselves, who stopped to chat with the spectators between their trips to the stage, signing autographs, posing for photographs. From Mr. Kagarise's photographs, it appears to be a homey, friendly atmosphere, maybe the kind of place you'd like to go after church on Sunday for a picnic and to hear some music. Both parks regularly advertised their concerts in The Aegis during the 1950s and 1960s.

Mr. Kagarise, who died at age 71 in 2008, recorded concerts at Sunset Park and New River Ranch for more than a decade. Those recordings, some of which can be heard in the Patterson exhibit, are among thousands of reel-to-reel tapes he made of major music acts that came to the Baltimore area in the 1950s, 60s and 70s, usually with cooperation from the promoters, when concerns about bootlegging and copyright infringement weren't what they've become in the Internet age. Before his death, Mr. Kagarise's recordings and photographs were archived by Joe Lee, a former music store owner who helped put together the exhibit at the Patterson.

The crowning feature of the Patterson exhibit are the 40 color prints made from more than 700 slides Mr. Kagarise shot with his Zeiss Ikon camera at New River Ranch and Sunset Park showing performers and fans alike, many in very candid settings. Accompanying the photographs is a short video that contains interviews with Mr. Kagarise and several of the performers in his photographs, as well as pictures of the two parks as they looked in the 1960s and today, with their stages still standing but long ago abandoned and forsaken to the stadium and area venue. The video clip can also be found on the Creative Alliance Web site at www.creativealliance.org. Most of the photographs in the exhibit and many others can also be found in the 2008 hardcover book "Pure Country: The Leon Kagarise Archives: 1961-71," which is available from Amazon.com for about $25.

Admission to the Patterson gallery is free. The gallery is open Tuesday through Friday from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Saturday from 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. It's a relatively easy drive from Harford County on I-95 to the Eastern Avenue exit. Turn right (west) on Eastern Avenue and go about 20 blocks. The Patterson is on the northwest corner of Eastern and East Avenue. On-street parking is usually available. The immediate neighborhood is relatively safe.

To close "The Way We Was," Creative Alliance is giving a performance Friday evening by Hazel Dickens, one of the first female bluegrass stars, who will be presenting a tribute to Ola Belle Reed, whose family owned the two music parks featured in the Kagarise exhibit. Alex and Ola Belle and the New River Boys were a featured group at the Sunset Park concerts in the 1960s. Tickets to the concert and reception afterward are $25, $23 for students and members. Advance purchases are recommended. For information, call 410-276-1651.


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