They Sang What They Lived: The Story of Carl and Pearl Butler is the first retrospective exhibition of the iconic country music duo whose timeless lyrics and harmonious melodies left an indelible mark on country music.
Carl Butler grew up in the Happy Holler area of North Knoxville, where he worked at Brookside Mills and played his unique rockabilly and country music in area honky tonks. By the early 1950s he appeared on local television variety shows such as the Cas Walker Farm and Home Hour. He achieved broader success after his wife Pearl sang on the 1962 hit "Don't Let Me Cross Over." The record was one of the fastest to ascend the Billboard charts and remains so today. The couple went on to achieve further popular and critical acclaim.
Watch this short documentary to learn more about the Butlers.
Key highlights of the exhibition include:
- Rare Family Archives: Museum 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 Allen Butler and his family for opening their home and archives to share with us,” says media archivist Bradley 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 exhibition is at the Museum of East Tennessee History in the East Tennessee History Center, 601 S. Gay Street.
Admission is $10.00 for adults, $8.00 for seniors 55 & over, and FREE for children 16 and under. A $6 per person Group Rate is available for adult groups of 10 or more. Admission is FREE each Sunday, and ETHS Members always receive FREE admission.
It is sponsored by the Clayton Foundation with support from the Downtown Knoxville Alliance.