In the 1970s, country music reached stratospheric heights by seamlessly weaving itself into the fabric of American culture by blending elements of folk and rock music into its Southern honky-tonk roots. Songs of love and loss, booze and gambling, family and country — the triumphs and struggles of everyday folks trying to make it through life — fueled a new generation of artists who reveled in a compelling mix of nostalgia, heartbreak, and pride.
The ‘70s brought talents like Loretta Lynn, Tammy Wynette, Reba McEntire, and Emmylou Harris into the ranks, their raw talent and star power shining alongside luminaries like Johnny Cash, Conway Twitty, John Denver, and Charley Pride. Throughout the decade, country music could be heard on popular television shows like Hee Haw as well as on local radio from coast to coast, the stars of the Grand Ole Opry were seen as national icons — with breakout performers like Dolly Parton, Kris Kristofferson, Willie Nelson, and Marie Osmond going Hollywood.
Photographer Henry Horenstein, a dyed in the wool Yankee, began photographing the country music scene as part of a final assignment for his history professor, the famed British writer and socialist E.P. Thompson, who helped Horenstein understand the importance of recording, studying, and documenting the people who were going to disappear from history unless someone preserved their role in it. He did just that, amassing an extraordinary archive of the images now on view in the new exhibition, Honky Tonk: Portraits of Country Music 1972-1981 – Photographs by Henry Horenstein.
A Portrait of an Era
Horenstein was just eight years old when he bought his first album, Johnny Cash Sings Hank Williams, at the suggestion of a local folksinger named Paul Clayton who used to hang out at Melody Shop, a record store in his hometown of New Bedford, MA. But it wasn’t until Horenstein was in his 20s that he found his sweet spot — the opportunity to do what his photography professor Harry Callahan sagely advised: “Shoot what you love.”
In 1973, Horenstein made his first road trip for this new series of work, driving from Boston to Nashville to photograph shows at Grand Ole Opry and Tootsies Orchid Lounge. He got to know the performers, even scoring invitations to their homes, establishing relationships that allowed him to reveal the intimate, human side of celebrity.
Horenstein’s portrait of Jerry Lee Lewis — the crossover country music star who became a rock & roll pioneer in the 1950s with classics like “Great Balls of Fire” and “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On” — shows us a moment of the artist in repose as he lights his cigar while sitting at the piano. Lewis is as assured as he is unassuming, a man just living his life, much like the fans that came out in droves to see their favorites perform. Horenstein’s effortless ability to discern the universal humanity of his subjects and tell it like it is makes his work the visual equivalent of a classic country song.
By Miss Rosen
Miss Rosen is a New York-based writer focusing on art, photography, and culture. Her work has been published in books, magazines, and websites including Time, Vogue, Artsy, Aperture, Dazed, and Vice, among others.
Honky Tonk: Portraits of Country Music 1972-1981 – Photographs by Henry Horenstein
On view through March 28, 2021
The Birthplace of Country Music Museum, 101 Country Music Way, Bristol, VA 24201, USA