For years, there have been whispers of a lost treasure-trove of country
recordings hidden away somewhere in the Northeast. Tapes of George Jones,
Dolly Parton, Hank Williams Jr., Loretta Lynn, Johnny Cash, Roy Acuff,
Tammy Wynette, Buck Owens, Charley Pride, and other icons -
a veritable all-star spectacular - were among those rumored to be
languishing in obscurity.
"Everybody had heard about these tapes," says J Franze, a North Shore audio
engineer who has worked extensively in Nashville. "But nobody really believed
Last year, the myth became reality. Hundreds of tapes were pulled from a barn
in southern Pennsylvania, recordings made at high schools, dances, fairs, festivals,
and auditoriums in Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Maryland, and elsewhere. It
was a fantasy collection, more than 1,000 unreleased live recordings by
country music royalty. Most were made in the late 1960s and early 1970s,
with a few dating to the 1940s, including shows by Acuff and Grandpa Jones
captured with wire recordings.
They were all recorded by Ken Alexander, who ran a small sound services company
near Dry Run, Pa. Alexander traveled to concerts throughout the region, setting
up sound systems at the various venues. Apparently, he decided to do some recording
while he was there.
Those tapes now belong to producer Richard Pittman, of Pitt/Penn Productions in
Los Angeles, who has worked with Franze on several projects and hired him to
clean up and restore the long-lost tapes. Pittman, who also works as an actor
under the name Richard Penn, grew up near Philadelphia. A "musician at heart,"
he says, he had been in pursuit of the lost barn stash since first hearing the
rumors of its existence.
Years ago, a highway worker named Matt Whitsel fixed Pittman's tire on the
Pennsylvania Turnpike. The two stayed in touch, and when Whitsel told Pittman
a story he had heard about the mythical tapes stored in the back of a barn,
the producer asked Whitsel to track down the mystery owner and set up a meeting.
The barn's owner, who had taken over the property when Alexander died, didn't
know much about the tapes or why anyone would want them.
"At first the owner didn't want to talk," Pittman says. "Finally, after hearing
that Matt was a local, he was willing to give us a sample tape."
Franze checked out the sample, found it was a reel-to-reel recording of a show
by Grand Ole Opry star Roy Acuff, and called Pittman to tell him it was the
real thing. That was enough to prompt Pittman's offer for the whole stash.
A photo of Alexander's mixing console, along with his typed sound services
rate sheet - recording was $1.50 extra - was found with the tapes. His log
lists a 1946 show by Acuff at "Valley View Park" as "#5," and the barn stash
included a wire recording from the same era by Grandpa Jones.
As the restoration project unfolded, it was clear to Franze that he was
listening to country music treasures of historical significance. For every dud,
like Alexander's unmarked recording of an automobile race, there were dozens of
Gems include Porter Wagoner tapes spiced with vocals by Dolly Parton and,
according to announcements on another tape, a young Crystal Gayle sitting
in on her older sister Loretta Lynn's show the night before Gayle started
recording her first album. Then there's clever, funny John Hartford singing
"(Good Old Electric) Washing Machine." A Feb. 10, 1968, show in Altoona, Pa.,
features Hank Williams Jr. sounding just like dad as he plays a set with
Hank Sr.'s original band. Many of the recorded shows feature as much story-
and joke-telling as they do music, as with Little Jimmy Dickens's intimate
conversations with his audience. The list also includes recordings
by Roy Clark, Earl Scruggs, Mel Tillis, Ernest Tubb, Osborne Brothers,
Jimmy Martin, Conway Twitty, and the Lewis Family gospel singers.
At the very least, one could assemble a few dozen killer country compilations
from this gold mine of material. But for now the collection appears headed
for Sotheby's, where the lost tapes and premastered restorations may hit
the auction block soon. Since the rights and royalties involved in releasing
the collection to the public could prove prohibitive, it might take a hall of
fame or Smithsonian-type institution to sort out the tangle.
"We are well aware of the cultural impact," producer Pittman says. "And wouldn't
it be nice if the tapes were to find a home in Nashville, where I think they belong."
According to Michael Lipton, executive director of the West Virginia Music Hall
of Fame, which recently had some of its recordings and rare instruments
appraised, even experts are often at a loss to put a monetary figure on
archives of such cultural value. "Tapes like these can offer a rare,
unfiltered glimpse into artists' music and personality or reveal their early
origins," he says. "There's a limited number of recordings of these artists
from that time period and this collection appears to be fairly broad."
Franze has finished 50 of the tapes, and no one knows what nuggets remain
unearthed in the hundreds of recordings that remain.
"Somebody," Franze says, "is in for a big treat."
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