Bluegrass musician, rockabilly singer, record producer, label owner, studio owner, and Friend of Bear Family, Rusty York died on January 26 this year after a long bout with degenerative brain disease. Rusty was a music business success story, but ironically one without major chart action and without songwriting success. He built a studio just north of Cincinnati, and just about anyone who wanted to record in the area went there. In many ways, he was an unostentatious man. Only his Rolls Royce hinted at his success.
Charles Edward York was born in Gray’s Knob near Harlan, Kentucky on May 24, 1935. His father was a miner, and his early career was predictable: Daddy taught him a few chords; he listened to the Grand Ole Opry from Nashville, and Mid-Day Merry-Go-Round from Knoxville; and he picked up a little knowledge here and there. He came of age just as bluegrass itself was being born, and was among the original fans to hear the early masters and emulate them. The Yorks left rural Kentucky for Cincinnati on Rusty’s seventeenth birthday, May 24, 1952. Charles Edward York became ‘Rusty York’ because his sister had bought him a guitar with ‘Rusty’ already stencilled on it in three-inch gold letters. “I thought rock ‘n’ roll would be a flash-in-the-pan and I’d go back to country,” Rusty said later. There was a joint single with Jackie DeShannon, followed by his only hit—a cover of the Jordanaires’ Sugaree. “We took it to RCA, we took it to Mercury, we took it to everybody, and nobody was interested. We then put it on our own label,” Rusty said later. Eventually, it appeared on Chess and became a hit. Rusty was on record hops and Dick Clark’s ‘Saturday Night Beechnut Show.’ It looked like the beginning of a great career, but it was over almost before it began.
There were more singles on more labels, none of them successful…and the best of them are on Bear Family’s ‘Rusty Rocks’ CD. Rusty made an appearance on Philadelphia’s Hy Lit Show, and as he made his way to his car, two young boys asked him for his autograph. He signed their books, and they tore up the pages in front of him. It was time to get out. He worked as a sideman for Bobby Bare and started Jewel Records (named for the Roy Acuff song The Precious Jewel and for the Little Jewel cigars he used to smoke). He finally bowed out of regular performing around 1970, and has very few regrets for the career that might have been. “I was making fifty dollars a night when I quit the nightclubs, and I think people are still making that today,” he told me in 2003. “All the while I was a singer, I was just barely making it. My electric was forever being cut off. I knew there was a safe end of the business, and a very risky one. I wanted to be on the safe end, instead of being on the risky end and a washed up entertainer by the age of thirty.”