[Knoxville, Tennessee] – 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:
1. 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 Reeves.
2. 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.”
3. 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.”
4. Interpretive Experience: Engage with the 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 through the cracks,” reflects Reeves. “It’s my hope that this book and exhibition will contribute to a reappreciation of their great body of work.”
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.
High-resolution images, B-roll, and institutional logos are available here.
Carl and Pearl Butler at their home, Crossover Acres, Franklin, Tennessee, mid-1960s
Courtesy of the Allen "Junior" Butler Family Collection/Museum of East Tennessee History
At 5:00 pm, Friday, October 6, 2023, there will be an opening reception for They Sang What They Lived: The Story of Carl and Pearl Butler. The event will include a meet and greet with Carl and Pearl Butler’s family, a book signing by guest curator Bradley E. Reeves, and an exhibition of Appalachian musical pioneer paintings by artist Amy Campbell. At 7:00 pm, there will be a “Tribute to Carl and Pearl,” opened by a performance of the Paul Brewster and Friends Band, comprised of 14-year-old mandolin prodigy Wyatt Ellis and Grand Ole Opry performers Daniel Grindstaff, Kent Blanton, Stephen Burwell, and John Meador. A screening of 8mm home movies shot by the Butlers (watch for an appearance by 10-year-old Dolly Parton), as well as some of the Butlers’ rarest television appearances, will conclude the evening.
The exhibition will be made available for a media preview from 1:30 pm to 3:00 pm, Friday, October 6, 2023. Guest curator Bradley E. Reeves will also be available for interviews.
For more information about the exhibition or to request an interview with Museum curators at a different time, please contact:
Community Engagement Manager
East Tennessee Historical Society
About the Museum of East Tennessee History
The Museum of East Tennessee History is located on the first floor of the East Tennessee History Center at 601 S. Gay Street in downtown Knoxville, Tennessee, and is comprised of four galleries: the introductory East Tennessee Streetscape, the signature Voices of the Land: The People of East Tennessee, the family-oriented, hands-on History Headquarters, and the ever-changing feature gallery. The Museum’s permanent collection is comprised of more than 16,000 objects. Its mission is to preserve, interpret, and promote the history of East Tennessee’s 35 counties and is operated through a public-private partnership between Knox County Public Library and the East Tennessee Historical Society.