The Radio City's Autumnal Elixir: A Lost Recording, An Everly Homecoming And A Ken Burns Documentary
September signals the beginnings of my beloved autumn, a favorite season where moments in life and career are amplified. And it has been gifting beautifully to the preservation efforts in which I've been involved, including recognition for early radio history in Shenandoah, Iowa through my work with the Everly Brothers Childhood Home Foundation.
My colleague Bill Hillman released an October 30, 1950 recording of the late Don Everly on KMA during his interview earlier this month on Iowa Public Radio. Last weekend, Don's son Edan returned to Shenandoah for the first time since Don and Phil's 1986 homecoming to reconnect with the "Radio City" where his father and uncle mastered close harmony singing to later emerge in "Music City" as The Everly Brothers.
In the following photos, my colleague Shelly Warner captured Edan exploring the radio exhibits at the Greater Shenandoah Historical Society last Friday, September 24th. It was a special moment when he played the piano that was once located in KMA's grand radio palace, the Mayfair Auditorium, where his father, uncle and grandparents performed in the 1940s and 1950s. One week prior, Edan was interviewed on the KMA Morning Show for his own KMA debut.
In addition to a concert and parade, Edan also joined his wife Keri and daughter Lily for a meet and greet, historical marker dedication and key to the city presentation at the Everly Brothers Childhood Home. The historical marker was facilitated, authored and designed by my twin sister Sheryl. Although we were unable to travel and attend due to the pandemic, we were very present through the work we've been building on since late 2016/early 2017.
The marker acknowledges the role that local radio stations KMA and KFNF played in Don and Phil's careers. When Don called KMA in January 2016, he reiterated that the experience they gained in Shenandoah gave them an edge on the competition in Nashville: "When we got our record deal here in Nashville," he said, "we had the experience of being on radio before, and our stage experience. And that all came into play when they played our records. And they (the records) were number one around the world. It was really a surprise to us. It was wonderful, really wonderful."
After the dedication, Edan was presented a key to the city by Mayor Dick Hunt who presented his father and uncle with a key in 1986. These photos by colleagues Shelly Warner (left) and Casey Freemyer (right) capture these special moments.
I'm especially drawn to the photograph that Casey captured of Edan performing at the concert. It hearkens to his father's playing style that he developed during those formative years in Shenandoah when he lifted his guitar to the microphone to be heard on radio broadcasts. Despite eventual amplification, Don continued to perform this way his entire career and it's a wonderful point of legacy to be carried on by his son Edan.
September is serendipitous in that this month also marks the second anniversary of the largest viewing audience Shenandoah's early radio history has ever received with the 2019 PBS premiere of Country Music by Ken Burns. Radio stations KMA and KFNF are briefly mentioned in the first episode (The Everly Brothers feature in the fourth installment). I thought it would be appropriate to share a guest blog I penned for Monday Creek Publishing about the series and to offer some context regarding the here and now.
Reading it again after two years makes me melancholy for the optimism I expressed at that time for the film's outcomes which were thwarted by the pandemic, a situation that continues to keep music professionals like myself in precarity. After everything else I've observed and experienced since early 2020, my outlook has dimmed considerably. I'm saddened that my hopes for its influence to rescue 152 Nassau Street in Atlanta from demolition were not realized. This is where the first country hit was recorded in 1923 and where significant blues and jazz recordings were also recorded. What does it say about the state of preservation when a commercial venture (Jimmy Buffett's Margaritaville, ironically) can sweep away such a venue from the architectural annals of music history?
While documentaries like Country Music are undoubtedly powerful tools, music preservation cannot live in celluloid. Film plays an essential role in audience development by transitioning viewers to fans, but it's all for not if the work isn't done on Main Street. We need to be onscreen and on the ground working with communities where the past requires our presence and care. That crucial investment is our play, our best hope.
But I'm grappling with a reality that's even more pronounced now: there's no support for music preservation fieldwork beyond what I refer to as "the whims of chance and charity" (grants and private patronage). Part of my focus during the pandemic has been to lead the way by communicating this issue to the public and by encouraging organizations working on arts policy to include funding for this vital work. If we are to truly honor our music history and heritage, we need to protect our professionals from exploitation and ensure just remuneration, resources and training. We need to create access to services for communities who have an interest in saving and interpreting their past, especially the underserved and underrepresented, who would otherwise not have the opportunity.
Music preservation is a new field and we need to assign value to the work and workers for it to be successful as we forge a path to professionhood. Our history and heritage depend on it, but this issue has deep, abiding roots. Starting with the first independent artists like W.A. Mozart in the 1780s (check out my Chronicles of a Modern-Day Mozartian), there was evidence of a societal barrier to financially rewarding music as a profession.
Music originated as an essential part of daily life for humans as modes of communication, leisure and entertainment. Amateur musicmaking in the home and community was commonplace. Music was everywhere: the streets, the park, the tavern, the church, the aristocrat's villa. The idea of paying to hear music would have seemed an odd and unnecessary notion. To earn a living from music was even more unimaginable.
Public concerts weren't widespread until the 19th Century. Musicians weren't paid, or at least not well, and this continues today for the very same reason: music is virtually free everywhere. Is it any wonder that a hobbyist perception and "starving artist" stigma/plight have been accepted and normalized? There's an expectation, a long history of entitlement and ownership, that has allowed society to exploit music professionals for centuries despite receiving direct economic, educational, social and cultural benefits from their labor.
This discriminatory practice must end. Preservationists, just like other music professionals, should never be expected to work gratis, for exposure or for low, intermittent wages. There's no greater insult to our history and heritage and to the idea of the American Dream than shortchanging our guardians and keepers. Remuneration should always be honored, but it isn't. Resolving this paramount issue will determine the future trajectory of music preservation, and thus the fate of music, landmarks, artifacts and their human interest components.
This sobering forecast aside, Country Music reminds me of the possibilities when there is investment. With "Little Donnie" being on-air again and the activities surrounding Edan and his family's visit to Shenandoah last weekend, revisiting my commentary about the unprecedented national campaign pursued by the Burns team is revitalizing at a critical time.
September 2019 // Notes from Sherry: Country Music and the Power of Film in Preservation
Premiering on September 15th, Country Music aired on PBS through September 25th. The 8-part documentary is a chronological telling of country music and its root genres, from the early 20th Century to 1996. Episodes are available to stream now through October 6th-16th. Viewers can learn more about the film, access extra behind-the-scenes content and order the film and soundtrack here.
Country Music represents a uniquely American story that touches every corner of our nation. And this is evidenced by the enthusiasm and excitement surrounding it. Watch parties are being held at music heritage sites featuring live music in many states. Belmont University in Nashville is developing a collection of educational resources to accompany the 16-hour film with classrooms nationwide being able to access it all for free on PBS Learning Media, a platform that reaches one million users each month throughout the school year.
Social media is abuzz with daily content from PBS, Director Ken Burns, interviewees and industry leaders as well as fans and communities embracing their local music history, many for the first time. I just joined my twin sister Sheryl on her study tour to Brownsville, Tennessee for Tina Turner Heritage Days with the West Tennessee Delta Heritage Center and I lost track of how many times the film was brought up in conversation.
The roll-out campaign for Country Music began in March with screenings and discussions being scheduled in 30 markets leading up to the premiere. Burns embarked on a promotional bus tour along the Tennessee Music Pathways with stops and events with local radio stations and other partners, bookended by the PBS airing of Country Music: Live at The Ryman Concert.
"We are thrilled to have had the opportunity to bring film excerpts of Country Music to those areas that gave birth to this most American of art forms. Ryman Auditorium, the Mother Church of Country Music, is a character itself in our film, and hosting this concert there was a dream come true for us. We are thrilled to now share this special evening with PBS viewers across the country,” said Burns.
A photo of yours truly at the Ryman Auditorium!
From the start, it has been a national experience. With most viewers tuning into the TV broadcast instead of streaming on demand, it hearkens to yesteryear when Americans gathered in front of their televisions for American Bandstand. There’s a communal feeling about viewership, but at the same time, the film is as intimate as those rural regions it visits, transportive through total immersion. Each episode is prefaced by a promo: “Nothing connects the country like country music.”
Indeed. Music, memories, places, buildings, artifacts. We’re all connected through art, our built environment, socio-cultural perspective and human interest. And as agents of this living and ever-evolving history of which we are a part, our collective voice is one of great power and beauty. It gives rise to our meaning, identity and potential. This is the essence of Burns’ epic. To quote American author H.A. Overstreet, “I have my own particular sorrows, loves, delights; and you have yours. But sorrow, gladness, yearning, hope, love, belong to all of us, in all times and in all places. Music is the only means whereby we feel these emotions in their universality.”
Country Music represents a reawakening. The film’s two-week airing schedule and it’s October streaming availability gives us the opportunity to celebrate and share in this particular part of our history as we’ve never done before. And as a preservationist, I can’t describe in words my optimism about this resurgence of interest and appreciation for our musical past. There’s an energy surrounding the series, and it’s already making an impact. I believe Country Music will translate directly into greater support for music history and heritage.
We’re going to see greater demand for music from artists featured in the film. We’re going to see more amateur and professional musicians cover their songs. We’re going to see more artists embrace historically informed performance practice. We’re going to see audiences visiting landmarks. Forbes just published an article, “Nashville Readies For Boost In Tourism Following Ken Burns’ Country Music Documentary.” Case in point.
The documentary’s role as a catalyst for music heritage tourism and support for preservation initiatives has tremendous potential. In fact, it could soon influence the outcome for an endangered landmark mentioned in its script. 152 Nassau Street in Atlanta, the former home of Okeh Records where Fiddlin’ John Carson recorded the first country hit in 1923, is facing demolition. A developer wants to build a Margaritaville-themed hotel there and the case is currently in court. A stop order was issued by the judge which halted demolition at the eleventh hour, but the fight is far from over. With Burns shining limelight onto this history in his film, will it be enough to make a difference?
Country music journalist Bobby Moore asked Burns about it a few days before the Country Music premiere: “Do you know about the Fiddlin’ John situation in Atlanta where they’re going to build a Margaritaville where he recorded his first hit? There’s a fight to save the building, or at least have its history commemorated.”
To which Burns responded: “I’m all for commemoration. I’m all not for tearing things down. Americans, despite how old we are, behave like we’re really young. We’ve lost a lot of beautiful things because we haven’t thought to save things. I’m happy that folks are doing it. I’ve made noise about developments of battlefields and noise about this and noise about that because it’s better to keep these things.”
Agreed. At a time when Nashville itself is razing historic buildings on Music Row at record pace (even the beloved Ryman was once on the chopping block in 1974), we desperately need a larger voice and platform to drive education, awareness and dialogue. And Country Music will be a key player. The significance of film as a vehicle for saving historic places and cultivating broader audiences cannot be underestimated.
For example, it was the popularity of the Johnny Cash biopic Walk the Line that ultimately saved his boyhood home and revitalized Dyess Colony. My twin sister Sheryl had the opportunity to join the preservation effort through a student project with the Arkansas State University. We attended the inaugural Johnny Cash Heritage Festival in 2017 and were filmed at the restored Cash home for Rosanne Cash’s music video for The Walking Wounded, a posthumous collaboration with her father. My article, “Channeling Cash, Poet Laureate Of The Walking Wounded,” offers an inside glimpse of our experience. Rosanne is an interviewee in Country Music, and as always, provides an education on “The Man in Black.”
Shenandoah, Iowa is featured in the first episode of the series for its pioneering role in radio with farmer friendly stations KMA and KFNF. And this is gratifying for the community as well as myself, my sister and our small team who have been working diligently to bring greater recognition to the town’s significance not only in radio, but also in music through our work for the Everly Brothers Childhood Home Foundation. Our Founder Bill Hillman contributed material to the Burns team about the early radio and music scene in Shenandoah.
I took a photo of this piece of Everly family memorabilia exhibited at the Greater Shenandoah Historical Society located next door to the Everly Brothers Childhood Home. It was signed by Margaret Everly for Mel Eyberg, his wife and son. "To Mel, Pauline and Mel Jr." Mel worked at KFNF and Henry Field Nursery.
There has been increased interest in The Everly Brothers partly due to the release of a 2016 documentary, entitled The Everly Brothers: Harmonies from Heaven, which also received some distribution on PBS. It’s still not widely known that Don and Phil Everly spent their formative years in Shenandoah where they received all of their musical training and made their professional debuts as child stars on local radio in the 1940s, but we're trying to change the narrative. Earlier this year, we completed a new short film, the first ever made about the Everly family in Shenandoah, that represents a step towards our future goal of creating a feature length documentary. Watch the trailer here:
The medium of film is such an integral part of preservation and the profoundness of Country Music gives me confidence in what is yet to come. Spanning nearly one century in 16 hours, Country Music is triumphant in its delivery, managing to capture the spirit of an entire genre through brilliant storytelling. The documentary creates a point of entry for audiences to learn more and indulge in this music, which is a tremendous supplement for those of us working to preserve and advocate this history and heritage. Burns and his team have not only given us a gift, but an instrument through which we can educate, enlighten and break barriers to embrace our shared American soundtrack.
"At the heart of every great country music song is a story,” says Burns. "As the songwriter Harlan Howard said, ‘It’s three chords and the truth.’ The common experiences and human emotions speak to each of us about love and loss, about hard times and the chance of redemption. As an art form, country music is also forever revisiting its history, sharing and updating old classics and celebrating its roots, which are, in many ways, foundational to our country itself.”
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