While not New Orleans, New York City or London, Johnson County has cultivated a range of musical styles.
People have swung and twirled to Gene Kellams Orchestra, grooved to garage bands at the Whiteland Barn and tapped along to the one-man band, J.C. Holstein.
Musicians play genres ranging from bebop to jazz and big band music at Heiflin’s Camp and heavenly choral music by the Voices of Franklin.
The Johnson County Museum of History has put together a special exhibit celebrating 100 years of local music, from opera to big band and hair metal. The display will include memorabilia, musical instruments and photos.
Visitors can attend a homecoming appearance by Whiteland native Kenny Wilkerson, the bass player for 1980s rock band Nova Rex, or jam to a reunited lineup of 1960s party band Try-Angle.
“Music has been such a rich part of the tradition and heritage of the county that it was something we wanted to explore. Once we got into it, we saw how many facets it exposed for the whole county,” said David Pfeiffer, curator of the museum in Franklin.
Much of the exhibit will inspire sharp pangs of nostalgia in residents who grew up in the county.
Photographs and testimonials will transport visitors to the wooden white dance floor and mirror ball of Heflin’s Camp, a country retreat near Edinburgh. They’ll relive the music of the Gene Kellams Orchestra, the Vagabonds and the Chuck Smith Orchestra.
People can see a trophy to the now-defunct Franklin Military Band as well as part of the contraption that Holstein built to play drums, guitar and harmonica all at the same time.
“That one’s really interesting. Trying to get the feel of how one person became a band is fascinating,” Pfeiffer said.
‘The ’80s were a fun time’
Almost all of the materials came from items already in the museum’s collection, Pfeiffer said. The exception has been the materials on Nova Rex. Those were donated by Wilkerson, who has seen a resurgence of interest in his former band.
In the glam-rock crescendo of the late 1980s and 1990s, he lived the rock ’n’ roll dream of big hair, excess and wild, guitar-driven music. Nova Rex was popular in the hair-metal scenes of Florida and Los Angeles before settling in Indianapolis as local celebrities.
They played sold-out shows in Broad Ripple, were sponsored by Budweiser and drew tens of thousands of people to concerts throughout the city.
Hair rock died out in the mid-1990s, and Nova Rex broke up. But a resurgence of interest in the goofy, glorious style has pushed Wilkerson back into the spotlight.
A documentary, “Nova Rex: Ain’t Easy Being Cheesy,” was released in 2011 and has been picked up by the Documentary Channel. Nova Rex memorabilia has been accepted into the Smithsonian Institution’s collection of pop music history and hangs in Indianapolis’ Hard Rock Cafe.
“It’s really cool to be honored in your hometown like that, for all of the hard work you’ve done,” Wilkerson said. “It’s fun to see our stuff still be relevant, with the documentary and everything.”
Wilkerson provided magazines with the band on the cover, album covers and his old guitar. One of the centerpieces is an outfit that he wore on stage: studded jacket, black leather pants and snake-skin boots with spurs.
“People think about their youth, and the ’80s were a fun time. The crazy fashions and everything else, they get excited for it,” he said.
The exhibition also tries to re-create the electric atmosphere of the Whiteland Barn, the premier youth hangout in the 1950s and 1960s.
A housefire destroyed much of the photographs, posters and other memorabilia from the Whiteland Barn, so Pfeiffer relied on eyewitness accounts of the crazy nights where bands played garage rock and the dance floor was the place to be seen.
‘It was the place’
The country had been swept away by Beatlemania and a vibrant musical culture was growing.
“When the Beatles became popular in 1964, every guy and girl wanted to be them. That might be an exaggeration, but most people either bought a guitar, borrowed a guitar, learned to play. There were bands everywhere,” Franklin resident Les Tabeling said.
Tabeling played in the band Try-Angle in Johnson County in the 1960s. The group aimed for a sound somewhere between the Beatles and the Beach Boys, playing sock hops, parties and school mixers.
For a short time, they had a regular gig performing five times a week at Fort Benjamin Harrison in Indianapolis. Try-Angle won a Battle of the Bands in 1967, where they got to have their picture taken with the Kingsmen of “Louie, Louie” fame.
The band was featured on a compilation of popular music put together by the U.S. Army that featured performers such as Dione Warwick, the BeeGees and Jay & the Techniques.
Though they never actually played at the Whiteland Barn, he remembers the energy that ran through it when they’d hang out there.
“It was the place. On the weekends, you had people packed in like sardines,” he said.
Tabeling and remaining members from Try-Angle will perform at the museum exhibit’s opening. Their one and only record, “Writing on the Wall,” is a collector’s item.
The group has started recording again and performs regularly, proof that people love to reminisce about the music of their youth. That is what will help attract people to the Johnson County Museum of History to see the exhibit, Tabeling said.
“Our song was more popular today than it was then,” he said. “The fact that this record is still popular after all these years makes up for the fact that it didn’t turn into careers.”
100 Years of Johnson County Music
What: An exhibit celebrating the rich history of music in Johnson County from the 1880s though the 1980s.
Where: Johnson County Museum of History, 135 N. Main St., Franklin
When: Friday through June 7
Cost: Admission is free
Reception: An opening reception will be from 6 to 8 p.m. Friday at the museum.
Whiteland native Kenny Wilkerson, bassist for popular glam metal band Nova Rex, will speak and sign autographs.
Les Tabeling and Jim Taylor, members of 1960s band Try-Angle, will perform in the museum auditorium.