The Old-Time Herald Volume 10, Number 8

Feature

 

Eugene Earle: A Lifetime Affair
Collecting Old-Time Country Music

By Adam Machado


Well, when I was a little shaver, probably about nine years old or something like that . . . you know, in Cleveland, I had the notion that I liked music. I didn’t know what kind of music, particular. I would twist the radio dials and I’d try to get away from the soap operas and hear some music. Then, typically for a kid, I would walk up three miles to the nearest theater to see the Sunday matinee. So one Sunday I went up and saw Gene Autry’s movie of “The Yodelin’ Kid From Pine Ridge,” and I immediately fell in love with Gene Autry’s music. So I wanted to hear as much as I could. You know that’s my first love, literally.
 -Gene Earle, Nipomo, California, 2003
Photo by Adam Machado

Visiting Gene Earle today, you get the sense that he hasn’t wandered too far from that movie theater in Cleveland Heights, Ohio, where he first fell in love with country music. At 79 years of age, he wouldn’t call himself a little shaver anymore, but he might have a hard time convincing you that the kid ever finished his popcorn and walked those three miles home. Country music continues to elicit in Gene the same sense of almost giddy wonder that grabbed him so long ago. Driven by the joy he discovered that Sunday, he has gone on to become one of the world’s premier collectors of old-time country music. At over 60,000 records, and thousands of related items, his collection represents a lifelong affair.

Gene has played a significant though quiet role in the survival of the music he loves. In 1960, he helped to establish the John Edwards Memorial Foundation (JEMF), one of the first organizations devoted to the study of vernacular music. Then, in a period of just a few years, he participated in the rediscovery of early commercial recording artists Clarence Tom Ashley, Dock Walsh, Jimmie Tarlton, and Dorsey Dixon, and together with Ralph Rinzler recorded Doc Watson for the first time. Gene’s discographic work, begun under the encouragement and guidance of his Australian correspondent John Edwards, helped to establish a standard for country music scholarship.

Now, after a lifetime of involvement with old-time music and at least one lifetime of accumulation, Gene has recently made what is perhaps his greatest contribution. In September, 2003, he donated the bulk of his collection—records, research, catalogues, posters, correspondence, photographs, transcriptions—to the Southern Folklife Collection at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. By their estimation, the donation exceeds 80,000 items. And record collecting was only Gene’s hobby.

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