They Sang What They Lived
The Story of Carl & Pearl Butler
Experience the Golden Age of Country Music from Happy Holler, Knoxville to the Grand Ole Opry, Nashville.
StatusAvailable Until August 19, 2024
GalleryRogers-Claussen Feature Gallery
They Sang What They Lived: The Story of Carl and Pearl Butler is the first retrospective exhibition of Carl and Pearl Butler, the iconic country music duo whose timeless lyrics and harmonious melodies left an indelible mark on country music. The exhibition is organized by the Museum of East Tennessee History and opens to the public on Saturday, October 7, 2023.
With a career spanning over four decades, Carl and Pearl Butler became celebrated figures in the world of country music. “Carl made scores of major-label records during the 1950s,” says Bradley E. Reeves, the exhibition’s guest curator and author of the new book Honky Tonkitis: On the Road with Carl Butler and Pearl. “These are some of the best bluegrass, gospel, and hard country records ever made, although none could be called a massive hit.” That honor would come in 1962, when Carl and Pearl recorded “Don’t Let Me Cross Over.” The song remains among the fastest ever to ascend to No. 1 on Billboard Hot Country Singles.
Carl and Pearl’s unique “Knoxville sound,” along with heartfelt lyrics, earned them a dedicated fan base who supported them at performances across the United States and Canada through the 1970s. The exhibition offers visitors a rare glimpse into the lives of these music legends.
Key highlights of the exhibition include:
- Rare Family Archives: Museums guests will have the opportunity to view the Allen “Junior” Butler Family Collection, which has been made publicly available for the first time and includes never-before-seen photographs, home movies, original instruments, and stage costumes that belonged to Carl and Pearl Butler. “I’m grateful to the Allen Butler and his family for opening their home and archives to share with us,” says Reeves.
- Musical Journey: Explore the duo’s musical journey through a feature film, which transports visitors through various periods of their career and traces their unfiltered, raw singing style, one that derived from and advanced the “Knoxville sound.”
- Behind-the-Scenes: Gain insight into the lives of Carl and Pearl Butler through never-before-seen family photographs and recently uncovered anecdotes from the family and fellow musicians, including Dolly Parton who viewed the Butlers as her “second parents.” “Despite their successes,” says Adam Alfrey, Assistant Director for Historical Services at Knox County Public Library, “Carl and Pearl faced personal and professional struggles, which are intimately documented through the family’s photographs.”
- Interpretive Experience: Engage with exhibition to understand how both Knoxville and Nashville played a role in the development of country music. Also learn how chart-topping artists can quickly become all but forgotten, even in their hometown. “The Butlers somehow fell thought the cracks,” reflects Reeves. “It’s my hope that this book and exhibition will contribute to a reappreciation of their great body of work.”
The They Sang What They Lived: The Story of Carl and Pearl Butler promises to be a heartfelt educational experience for country music enthusiasts and fans of all ages. It serves as a testament to the enduring influence of Carl and Pearl Butler on the world of music.
The exhibition will run through August 18, 2024. It is sponsored by the Clayton Foundation with support from the Downtown Knoxville Alliance.