Across a narrow aisle from me was Phil Gailey, then of the Washington Star, now long defunct the paper, not Phil. A country boy with a finely-honed taste for sippin' whiskey, cigars and an autoharp that he played with a mellow intensity, Phil slowly but surely introduced me to the music of his childhood: from that of old-time greats like Mother Maybelle Carter and Hank Williams, to the sounds of the newer generation, typified by Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson.
I brought to the table a Bronx boy's love of rock and roll, and memories of going loudly wild at live shows at the Brooklyn Fox and Brooklyn Paramount theaters, especially when my all-time favorite rocker, Jerry Lee Lewis, stopped the show with kick-ass sets that were one part music, one part demonic possession.
And, of course, Jerry Lee was a country boy from Louisiana and like that other phenomenal rocker of the time, Little Richard, had a solid grounding in gospel music.
That heaven and hell combination was irresistible to me, and obviously to millions of other music fans. It was a creative mix that found its best expression in country music the real country music, featuring fiddles, steel guitars, a drum, a bass and in Jerry Lee's case, one "pumping piano." The more melodic, more heavily produced "Nashville Sound" of the late 70s string sections and backup vocals left me cold.
What I did not realize then was how universal, in fact how urban, "country music" actually was. "A lot of people assume country music is a Southern thing," writes photographer Henry Horenstein in his latest book, Honky Tonk Portraits of Country Music 1972-1981 (Chronicle, $24.95) "It isn't: it's everywhere. It always has been even in New Bedford, Massachusetts, where I grew up, one hour south of Boston."
[That probably accounts for my own attraction to it. During the Carter years when we were on the road, Phil Gailey and I and any number of other newsies and White House staffers would get together in the evening and sing old tunes, or reconfigure them just for the hell of it. See below for one example, that I wrote with Rich Jaroslovsky of the Wall Street Journal.]
Horenstein's book is a remarkable love note to a bygone era, a book that combines striking documentary photography in bars and roadhouses with wonderful unadorned portraits of country music legends, almost-legends and wannabes. At the same time it pays tribute to country's enduring, if transmogrified, appeal.
"Today country dominates American popular music," notes Charles McGovern, curator of American Popular Culture at the Smithsonian, in Honky Tonk's afterword. "Country radio stations outnumber all others, and country music outsells everything but rock-and-roll."
Still, there is poignancy to Horenstein's work: from the undeniable conclusion that, despite country's huge popularity today, the more human-scale milieu of this unique American music form has all but disappeared.
That is to say: the rickety Ryman Auditorium, home of the venerable Grand Ole Opry, is long gone, replaced by the much larger "grander" Grand Ole Opry House in Nashville.
The very honky tonks after which Hortenstein's book is named those somewhat seedy roadhouses featuring live music and cold beer that could be found most everywhere outside the big city are all but vanished, eaten up by urban renewal and development.
And perhaps worst from the standpoint of those who would preserve all this in words and images is the fact that a whole generation of big-headed, pig-headed entertainers and their handlers now routinely refuse to let any documentarians, photographers especially, inside the velvet rope unless they surrender all rights to their work, even giving the talent the right to say which images will be used or destroyed.
"It would be difficult to do a book like this now," Horenstein told me. "Though I suppose if a young photographer were to concentrate on a music culture that was not yet (and maybe never will be) popular that musicians would cooperate happily."
Certainly, a young Henry Horenstein did not set out to earn fame or big money when he began this project more than three decades ago (he now is in his late 50s and has done more than 30 other books.) Back then, Horenstein merely followed his heart.
Trained as a historian, he also had a love of making pictures. "In my junior year in college, I became interested in photography," Horenstein says in his Introduction. "For one thing, it got me out of the library stacks and got me involved with people rather than with books. And, honestly, photography was 'cooler' than history, and it got me a lot more dates..."
The historian in him quickly realized that history is the account written by the powerful or the victorious. The photographer in him, seeking a more unfiltered look at reality, gravitated to the just published documentary work of Danny Lyon, not to mention the seminal book for any documentarian, Robert Frank's The Americans.
"So I knew that I wanted to take pictures, make books and record history. But where to start? A few years later, my photography teacher at the Rhode Island School of Design, Harry Callahan, answered the question simply by telling me to photograph people and places to which I was naturally drawn....And so I started photographing even more around music shows and concerts. I figured that even if I got lousy pictures, I would probably have a good time."
"Most of the photographs in Honky Tonk were made with equipment and techniques that are long outdated," Horenstein writes. "I would never recommend them to an aspiring photographer today..." [But I would.]
Horenstein's camera of choice was a square format Rolleiflex Wide, a twin-lens tank with a razor sharp 55mm Zeiss Distagon lens. (He also did some of the project with Leicas M2s and M4s). Everything was shot on Tri-X.
It was his lighting, though, that gave his project its wonderfully contrasty film noir edge. I love the stark, all-revealing look of his indoor portraits:
a cocky Roy Acuff, who "lorded over the Grand Ole Opry from 1937 virtually until his death in 1992," standing erect with his fiddle, wearing a checked sports coat and a perfect pompadour and looking not at Horenstein, but directly above him, as if to the audience.
Jerry Lee Lewis, whose "roots are pure country and his life pure soap opera." The Killer is shown in repose of sorts, sitting in front of an upright Baldwin and lighting a huge cigar, a drink perched nearby. His shiny hair is combed in a perfect wave and, even while relaxed, he looks like one ornery sumbitch.
Any one of Horenstein's take in Tootsies Orchid Lounge in Nashville, the archetypal honky tonk, in which real people with real problems and real dreams hung out with singers great and unknown in an easy camaraderie that would be near-impossible today.
The lighting? This is gonna date me, but I remember Horenstein's old Honeywell "potato masher" strobe as if it were yesterday. The sucker had only one flash position direct and provided a wash of light that, while somewhat harsh, also rendered detail spectacularly well.
"Honestly," Henry told me, "I used direct flash in those days because I wasn't very good at lighting and also had to shoot quickly....I like the openness of the direct flash...the 'objectivity' of it. Being able to produce detail everywhere, with few if any shadows."
"By the way, I had one of those mashers fitted with a bare bulb by a local camera repairman. Couldn't find (or afford) a more sophisticated unit..."
Though Horenstein comes dangerously close to being a Renaissance man (I mean, after all, 30 books, including texts, fine art tomes and kid's books), he is especially delighted that this one finally saw print.
"This was my first body of work ever really," he told me, "and I am incredibly happy that I finally got it out. I have three strong interests besides photography country music, animals and horse racing. And [now] having done books on all these subjects, I feel I almost could put my camera down.
"Though I doubt I will."