I’m a country western fan from way back. In the ‘70s, I hitch-hiked to Nashville to eat at Merchants Lunch, troll the record bins at Ernest Tubb’s, and drink at Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge, the iconic bar in which Willie Nelson reputedly wrote “Crazy.” I’ve been to shows at the Ryman Auditorium, former home of the Grand Ole Opry. A friend from Nashville once bought me a full set of Patsy Cline vinyl.
So the current exhibit at the Annenberg Space for Photography—“Country: Portraits of an American Sound”—is right up my alley.
From the outside, 2000 Avenue of the Stars is one of those soulless buildings that makes the Angeleno heart quail at the phrase “Century City.” Part of the fun is parking beneath the building and emerging, dazzled, to a huge open courtyard: lawn, sycamore-shaded walkways, and charming bistro tables and chairs.
Inside the museum, a 36-minute Arclight Productions film features various country stars—Marty Stuart in pancake makeup, Keith Urban with Transfiguration-white teeth—emphasizing that country’s about “real life.” Country comes from a place that’s “pure and uncorrupted by the rest of the world.” This isn’t meant to be ironic (I don’t think). Either way, the video gets at the paradox of country music, which is that it evokes genuine feelings with a whole lot of artifice.
And oh, what feelings. The mentor of Boston-based Harry Horenstein told him: “Photograph what you love.” Horenstein’s black-and-white shots from the ‘70s capture the humanity of musicians and fans alike. Bill Monroe, white loafers flecked with mud, stands alone in the parking lot after a concert at the Take It Easy Ranch in, Callaway, Maryland. A fat lady with glasses, splayed in a bar booth, swills from an upended can of Pabst.
In “Leaving the Ryman,” 1972, the audience streams out the back door after a show. These are the folks who flock to honky tonks and corner dives and juke joints: the cheated-upon, the yearning, the hard-faced and tender-hearted. Like us, they want to believe that one day they’ll be first in someone’s heart. One day our families will be reconciled. But tonight, the magic’s over. Tonight, it’s time to go back to that lonely apartment and turn on the record player. Even the little blond kid look dejected.
Other featured photographers include “the late amateur photographer Elmer Williams; the late studio photographer Walden S. Fabry; veteran Grand Ole Opry staff photographer Les Leverett; the late Los Angeles-based photographer Leigh Wiener; iconic entertainment photographers Henry Diltz, Raeanne Rubenstein and Ethan Russell; and contemporary photographers David McClister and Michael Wilson.”
The stars are all here: Dolly. Porter. Merle. Loretta. Johnny Cash. The Louvin (“Satan is Real”) Brothers. Here’s Waylon Jennings in black leather vest and Van Dyke beard, looking diabolically sexy. Here’s Tammy Wynette in banana yellow bellbottoms and pink Lucite shades, gripping a cigarette and looking surly. Here’s Lyle Lovett looking deep, Lyle staring off into the middle distance, Lyle trying on cowboy hats in a Houston store, and Steve Earle in a hoodie reading, “I Oppose the Death Penalty. Don’t Kill For Me.”
As a wall commentary notes, “The relationship between fans and performers has always been emphasized in country music.” Somehow I felt the connection more with the photos that were taken before orthodontics and cosmetic surgery conspired to make everyone look like they were born in a lab. A 1966 Walden S. Fabry picture of Hank Snow in a fantastic Nudie Cohn jacket and a smile revealing that, clearly, Hank smoked. A Les Leverett photo of a 1960 radio interview with Patsy Cline in which, even wearing a swank mink stole, Patsy looks pure and uncorrupted. “Carnegie Hall was real fabulous,” she observed, “but you know, it ain’t as big as the Grand Ole Opry.”
Don’t miss the videos outside the restrooms: “Cowboys of Hollywoodland,” an 8-minute silent home movie featuring Gene Autry and Roy Rogers; “Opry Afternoon,” rare footage of a 1959 summer party thrown by Roy Acuff in which Minnie Pearl, June Carter, and Grandpa Jones appear in street attire; and “Channeling Country,” a compilation of clips broadcast on ABC from 1955 to 1960 that includes Johnny Cash and Joni Mitchell singing a stupendous version of “Long Black Veil.”
I emerged from the museum into the bright afternoon light, “Sweet Dreams” still ringing in my ears. My parking ticket got stuck in the machine, cross-town traffic was awful and I ended up being late for my mammogram appointment.
Waiting in a cold room for the tech to arrive, I thought of how Patsy Cline had died in a plane crash at 30. I thought about how my friend who’d given me the full set of vinyl had been murdered a few years ago on the steps of his Nashville home. I reflected that anyone who sang “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” the way Hank Williams did had definitely grasped the essence of Christ.