Folk Revival: The Cumberland Trio’s 50-Year Saga as One of the Folk Era’s Great Forgotten Bands Finally Comes to an End

In the summer of 1964, the Cumberland Trio was holding down a two-month residency at the old Greystone Playhouse in Gatlinburg. The exhausting schedule—two sets a night, six nights a week, from late June through Labor Day—was intended as an ofFicial woodshed session for the popular University of Tennessee folk band to perfect its live show before a national tour that fall. The members of the group—which was actually a quartet—felt like they were on the verge of a huge breakthrough, and with good reason.

Under the tutelage of Chet Atkins, the Trio had just recorded 12 tracks in New York for their debut album. They had appeared on national television alongside Bill Monroe and Doc Watson. Folk music like theirs had flooded college campuses—and the pop charts—in the early ’60s, and they figured they were just as good as the Kingston Trio or Peter, Paul, and Mary—their resplendent three-part harmonies and instrumental chops, far beyond most of their peers, had set them apart from the beginning. And they were packing the theater with tourists and fans from Knoxville every night.

They had offered the theater’s management $150 a month or 20 percent of the net from ticket sales. Management took the sure thing.

“That was a bad decision on their part,” says Cumberland Trio singer and guitarist Jerre Haskew. “There was very little entertainment in Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge then, so this was like stealing. It was like the Pied Piper—go around to the restaurants and lead them back.”

By the end of that hopeful summer, though, everything had turned sour. The band’s label filed for bankruptcy in late August, just as the Greystone residency was ending; their album was shelved and the master tape lost for almost 50 years. On top of that, the British Invasion changed pop music in a flash. There was one final, disastrous concert that fall and then a half-hearted attempt to reinvent themselves as a rock band, and then it was all over. Instead of a national debut, the Cumberland Trio got a last stand.

“In a year and three months, from May of 1963 to the end of August in ’64, we went from the outhouse to the penthouse, up to the absolute penthouse, and down to the absolute outhouse,” Haskew says.

By now it’s a familiar narrative—the number of Knoxville bands that almost made it in the ’80s, ’90s, and ’00s has become a defining feature of the city’s contemporary music scene.

At the time, though, things were different. Dozens of famous country performers—Roy Acuff, Don Gibson, Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs—had served apprenticeships here before moving on to Nashville. But that pipeline had dried up during the early rock ’n’ roll era; Knoxville wasn’t the country-music minor leagues anymore. The Cumberland Trio was in uncharted territory.

But the group had an unlikely second act in the 21st century, releasing of all of its unreleased archival recordings on CD and reuniting for a handful of concerts in Knoxville and Chattanooga between 2001 and 2005. This short but sweet postlude to the band’s career confirmed that the Trio had indeed been a deserving contender for the top ranks of the ’60s folk movement.

“Their story is not an unusual one for the time—it’s just that they were so good,” says Nick Noble, a folk-music expert and radio host in Worcester, Mass., who has supported the Trio since their reunion in 2001. “What usually happened is that people would get the cheap recording contract and do a record and then the label would drop them like a hot potato because they didn’t sell much. If [the Cumberland Trio] had had a record that had gotten out there, they could have at least been a cult favorite, and they lost that, and that is a shame.”

The death of a founding member brought the Trio’s late-career revival to an end last fall, but not before the group finally released its long-lost New York album. That’s little comfort for the band members, who regard each other as brothers. But after 50 years, the story of the Cumberland Trio—with all its promise and frustration, and its ultimate redemption—seems like it’s now complete.

***

The roots of the ’60s folk movement go all the way back to the 1930s and ’40s, when musicologists and songwriters like Pete Seeger, Alan Lomax, John Hammond, and Harry Smith started taking serious interest in traditional American music like blues, old-time mountain music, string bands, and gospel. In addition to bringing renewed interest to an older generation of blues and country musicians, the folk revival also inspired a new wave of college folk bands in the late ’50s and early ’60s.

The Kingston Trio’s hit recording of “Tom Dooley” set the template. Countless fresh-scrubbed young liberal students followed, playing slick, polished versions of traditional songs, usually with impeccable harmonies. Hit singles by the Chad Mitchell Trio, the New Christy Minstrels, the Rooftop Singers, the Highwaymen, and the Serendipity Singers crowded the top of the charts; it was the biggest phenomenon in popular music since rock ’n’ roll, almost a decade earlier.

Jerre Haskew and Andy Garverick came together to form what would become the Cumberland Trio in the fall of 1962, at the height of the campus folk craze. They met at UT’s Delta Tau Delta fraternity house; Haskew, a junior from Chattanooga, was already a member, and Garverick, a freshman, was rushing. Haskew had just started playing guitar and banjo but was already trying to start a folk group. “I just had a burr in my butt to do it,” he says. When Haskew learned that Garverick played banjo, he persuaded him to go get his instrument right then.

“I listened to him play until four o’clock in the morning,” Haskew says. “I said, ‘You’re going to pledge Delta Tau Delta and we’re going to form a folk group.’ He said, ‘Okay, let’s do it.’”

Garverick had grown up in Alexandria, Va., near the Baltimore/Washington, D.C., bluegrass scene, and was already an accomplished and experienced player. (As a bonus, he also had classical vocal training.) Haskew, on the other hand, had no experience at all. But he did have enthusiasm.

“I never recall singing, other than being in the congregation of a church,” Haskew says. “Coming up to UT, ‘Tom Dooley’ came out and flipped a switch with me. I said, I want to do this.”

By early 1963, Haskew and Garverick had recruited another fraternity brother, Jim Shuptrine, also from Chattanooga, on bass and Tom Kilpatrick, a guitarist and tenor singer from Atlanta. Both added immediate credibility to the new band: Shuptrine was new to the bass, but he was the first-chair trombone in the UT concert band; Kilpatrick had been singing in choirs and choral groups since he was a child, and would go on to tour Europe with the UT Singers. He had also played in a high-school folk group that had appeared on The Original Amateur Hour television show in New York.

By the spring of ’63, the new group—which took its name from the Cumberland Avenue Strip, not the mountains—had progressed enough to win UT’s Carnicus, an annual end-of-the-year student talent show. They played three songs, won $50, and got a standing ovation.

“I remember looking at Tom and Tom looking at me and thinking, what the hell’s going on here? Are we really that good? That was the beginning of saying, maybe we’ve got something going on here,” Haskew says.

Bob Newsome, the owner of a menswear shop on the Strip, became a sponsor of the band, providing them with free matching stage outfits (“We looked good,” Kilpatrick says) and acting as their manager. They toured the Southeast and East Coast, mostly playing at other college events on weekends. “We played colleges that were too small to afford the Kingston Trio,” Haskew says. They developed a repertoire of folk standards like “John Henry,” “Make Me a Pallet,” and “Ride Up,” which became one of their signature songs. Haskew contributed “A Lion Named Sam,” a gentle children’s song in the spirit of “Puff the Magic Dragon” that would play a role in the band’s reunion in 2001. His wife, Barbara, wrote a lovely protest ballad called “Wish I Were a Babe.” (Nick Noble later named “Babe” one of the top 50 protest songs of the folk era.)

At the end of 1963, Newsome paid for a trip to a national college folk contest in Jacksonville, Fla. Fifteen bands had been chosen from 150 entries. The Cumberland Trio won, earning a $1,000 scholarship for UT and $600 for themselves. One of the bands they beat, the Hillmen, was led by future Byrd Chris Hillman.

“And then the big thing happened—Hootenanny comes to town,” Kilpatrick says. “That was the big deal.”

***

Hootenanny was a short-lived but popular prime-time folk-music variety show on ABC, taped at a different college campus every week. When the show stopped at UT’s ag campus in January 1964, the Cumberland Trio was selected to round out a lineup that also included Bill Monroe and the Blue Grass Boys and Doc Watson.

It was an eventful production week for the Trio. Haskew says Fred Weintraub, the owner of the Greenwich Village folk club the Bitter End, offered to buy “Wish I Were a Babe” and “A Lion Named Sam” for $500 each. They saw Kenneth “Jethro” Burns, one half of the Knoxville country comedy duo Homer and Jethro, rip through Rachmaninoff’s Cello Sonata on his mandolin to shut up a condescending crew member. And they ran into Glen Campbell, the bassist for the house band; Kenny Rogers, then a member of the New Christy Minstrels; and Carly Simon, who was on the program with her sister Lucy as the Simon Sisters.

The Trio played just one song, “Ride Up,” but their performance impressed Burns. He passed word of the band on to Chet Atkins in Nashville.

Atkins, a native of Union County, was at the peak of his powers as a producer and executive in Nashville. He had been head of RCA’s Nashville production division since 1957, and during that period he’d been one of the principle architects of what became known as the Nashville sound—a smoother, pop-friendly production style that developed in the late ’50s and early ’60s in response to the tough, raw sound of honky-tonk. Despite the whiff of desperation that hung over the Nashville sound’s crossover aspirations, Atkins remained a respected producer and talent spotter into the early ’70s.

So an invitation from him, extended through Newsome, to come record at RCA’s now-legendary Studio B at RCA was both welcome and intimidating; Kilpatrick and Garverick oversaw two weeks of intense practices leading up to the Nashville trip. But Atkins immediately put them at ease when they arrived.

“This was our first big recording deal, and he’s just the nicest calmest, most gentlemanly kind of guy. ‘Hi boys, I’m going to help you through this. I’m going to be up in the booth, and this is going to be fun. We’re going to have fun,’” Kilpatrick remembers.

They recorded 15 songs in that day-long session, most in a single live take—no overdubbing, no second chances. But they were ready, and Atkins’ laid-back presence coaxed a promising demo out of the band.

“The key to recording, in my opinion—and live-in-the-studio recording is better than anything—is to relax,” Haskew says. “We came out with a good piece of music.”

***

After the RCA sessions, Atkins sent the Cumberland Trio to New York. The main priority was a second recording session, but the band took it as an opportunity to explore their options. The visit, in April 1964, was the hinge in the band’s career. At the time, the New York trip seemed to represent their imminent success. In hindsight, it appears to be the beginning of the end.

“We had a rock ’n’ roll producer named Larry Finnegan, a one-hit wonder guy who was a New York jerk,” Haskew says. (As a singer, Finnegan had had a hit in 1961 with “Dear One.”) “The engineer was very abrupt and gruff. … I don’t remember it being a pleasant time.”

As a producer, Finnegan was the opposite of Atkins; it took four days to get 12 songs down in New York. “He was an overproducer,” Kilpatrick says. “He wanted to dictate every phrase, every little piece. We hated that. We were pretty arrogant—we’d had some success and thought we knew what to do. But Finnegan had had a rock ’n’ roll hit and thought he was hot stuff, too. We hated every minute of that recording.”

But Finnegan’s rigor paid off. The music the Trio recorded that week is tougher, crisper, and faster—in a word, more commercial—than their Nashville work from just a few weeks earlier.

“In reality, he did some good things,” Kilpatrick says. “Tempos, different approaches to some stuff—I think it was his idea to use the 12-string guitar, for example, on ‘Ride Up,’ which turned out to be a great idea. But he’d stop us four phrases into something and say, ‘No, Haskew, you missed that.”

While they were in New York, the Trio auditioned for the William Morris Agency and talked to an advertising executive turned aspiring music manager. They also defected, with Atkins’ approval, from RCA to a brand-new but much-hyped label called Record Industries Corporation, run by a former Capitol Records vice president.

“It was five times what RCA was offering us,” Haskew says. “We were going to be their Kingston Trio, coming out of the South. … Chet even said that it might be a good idea, because once it got out of his hands, he wasn’t the promoter of it. ‘We’ve got a lot of artists, and they’re going to promote you a lot harder than we are.’”

RIC bought the Cumberland Trio’s contract and the New York tapes from RCA. But it turned out to be the wrong deal. RIC wasn’t an upstart indie; it was a weird knockoff label with no identity and no established stars. During 1964, the label released, among other oddities and obscurities, a couple of go-nowhere singles by Finnegan, a soul album by NFL All-Pro Roosevelt Grier, and a cash-in reissue of early Billie Holiday live recordings. In late August, just as the Cumberland Trio was wrapping up its Gatlinburg residency, RIC filed for bankruptcy, shelving the album for good.

The timing couldn’t have been worse. Left stranded without a label or an album, the members of the band realized that their rise had unfortunately coincided with the decline of folk music nationally. The impact of the Beatles earlier that year—along with all the other British Invasion bands that followed, Bob Dylan’s drift away from protest songs, and the emergence of Motown—had made the more traditional folk acts seem conservative and outdated.

“The Kingston Trio and the rest of them became small-hall and club acts overnight,” Haskew says. “It just changed the face of music. The folk era was gone, and we had no place to go.”

Their last performance was in the fall of 1964 at Wake Forest University. The show was interrupted after three songs with an impromptu pep rally—the school’s football team, terrible in the early ’60s, had just won a rare game. “All of a sudden, a guy comes running in and says, ‘The team’s here! The team’s here!’ They threw up the lights. The coach marches in with the whole team and introduces every one of them and tells their life story. We’re standing there with our instruments—what are we supposed to do?”

Later, in January 1965, the Trio recorded two folk-rock songs, one by a young Delbert McClinton, at WIVK. They were all disappointed by the results. It was one last indignity, but Kilpatrick says it may have saved them in the long run.

“Probably the best thing that ever happened to us was the Beatles,” he says. “We might be playing in the Holiday Inn in Topeka, Kan., if that were not the case.”

***

In 1968, Haskew was in Nashville on a business trip. He looked up Atkins at RCA; the two talked for a while, and then Atkins disappeared for a few minutes. He returned with the master tape from the band’s first 1964 session. “He said, ‘I’m going to sign this over to you. You might want to use it one day,’” Haskew says.

Years later, as an anniversary gift, Haskew’s wife presented him with a private-pressing edition of a children’s book based on “A Lion Named Sam.” The gift inspired him to dig out the old RCA tape to have that song restored and remastered.

“I find this guy named Steve Wallace here in town who could do that,” he says. “So we unwound that tape very slowly, very slowly. He remastered the ‘Lion Named Sam’ song onto digital audiotape and on over to CD. Then he spoke the magic words: ‘I’d like to remaster this whole thing.’”

The results were combined with seven songs recorded in 1963 at the Pump Room, a club on Cumberland Avenue, and the two 1965 rock songs, as The Cumberland Trio, in 2000. It was the first official release of music by the Trio, 38 years after the band was formed and 35 years after it disbanded.

When Haskew presented a few copies to the alumni office at UT, a former college classmate working there invited the Trio to perform a reunion show at the Bijou for homecoming in 2001. A second Bijou show followed in 2004, and then an appearance at Chattanooga’s Riverbend Festival in 2005. Both the Bijou shows were recorded and released as live CDs.

If the rediscovery of the RCA recordings was a surprise, though, the recovery and restoration of the New York tapes was just short of a miracle—even though Haskew had them in his possession the whole time. Bradley Reeves at the Tennessee Archive of Moving Image and Sound contacted Haskew, searching for footage from the Hootenanny show in 2012. (There’s video footage from the first half of the show, minus the Trio, but Kilpatrick’s father, an obsessive home recorder, made an audiotape of the full show.)

“Haskew came in with a big pile of reel-to-reel tapes for transfer,” according to Reeves. “One tape turned out to be the missing and unreleased RIC sessions, recorded to tape decades ago from an acetate disc demo. Tape was fragile and shrunken (shedding and sometimes breaking during playback), but I managed to get a good transfer of most of the tracks. I believe a portion was incomplete or missing, but I found another tape reel in the pile which seemed to be in even worse physical condition, but contained the missing and/or incomplete tracks.”

After an even more laborious restoration, Lost and Found: The 1964 New York Sessions was released last summer. For a while, as the album was being prepared, it looked like the band might reconvene for a few more shows. But their triumph was bittersweet. In early 2013, Garverick was diagnosed with liver cancer.

“The prognosis was not good,” Haskew says. “He fought it and fought it and fought it, but eventually he went off the meds, because the side effects were horrible. He was my best friend for 50 years, from when he was a kid coming through rush.”

The new CD turned out to be their last official undertaking as a band. A scheduled appearance at Riverbend was canceled after Garverick’s diagnosis, and plans for a possible CD release show in Knoxville were called off. After Garverick’s death, in September, his former bandmates decided the band couldn’t continue without him. Instead of a farewell show, they gathered in Atlanta for a memorial.

“It basically put an end to what we do,” Haskew says. “Somebody said, well, why don’t you get somebody to take his place? Nobody could take his place.”

It was the toughest blow yet for a band that had already taken a lot of them—incalculably worse than a bankrupt label and an aborted show at Wake Forest. But bittersweet or not, Lost and Found is indeed a triumph—over time and age and bad luck. The band had finally fulfilled at least a part of what it set out to do 50 years ago.

“It’s sad that they were discovered so late. They had about a decade to enjoy it a little bit, but now there’s no Cumberland Trio anymore, and that’s sad,” Nick Noble says. “Their authenticity, a lot of it came from the fact that they didn’t change bodies from the main three—the three singers were the same from beginning to end. The Highwaymen and Peter, Paul, and Mary for a while were the only other groups that could say that. Now there are no groups that can say that. The Cumberland Trio were the last of them, and they were among the best of them.”

© 2014 MetroPulse. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Comments » 1

hitman9900 writes:

Matthew Everett has truly captured the story of our 50 year music journey. His research and writing are impeccably accurate. We are forever in his and the Metro Pulse's debt! Thank you!

Jerre Haskew & Tom Kilpatrick
The Cumberland Trio

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