Honky-tonk heroes

By GREG COOK  |  September 19, 2012


When Henry Horenstein began photographing Boston's seedy Hillbilly Ranch tavern, New Hampshire's Lone Star Ranch country-music park, and the legendary Ryman Auditorium and the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville in the early 1970s, he came for the music.

But he also "saw all this as a disappearing world that I wanted to preserve on film," the Bostonian wrote in 2003.

The black-and-white shots in his show "Honky Tonk" suggest he was partly right, partly wrong.

Here are stars: Dolly Parton, with her big hair and bigger bosom, in a poufy dress backstage at Boston's Symphony Hall in 1972. She'd just begun to score solo hits, and she looks like a doe in the headlights. Here is Waylon Jennings with a cigarette in his mouth and a guitar in his hand, backstage in Cambridge in 1975, looking like the kind of guy who could hang out with the Devil at the crossroads. Here is a smoldering Jerry Lee Lewis with his slicked-back wavy hair, sitting at a piano at Boston's Ramada Inn in 1976, lighting a cigar.

But Horenstein also photographs the audience — a fellow perched on a Nashville barstool playing a harmonica, a weathered man in a cowboy hat lighting a cigarette in the Hillbilly Ranch's darkness, people crowding around the tour bus of Ernest Tubb among the sunny trees of the Lone Star Ranch. It's hard knocks and booze, sin and redemption and gritty good times.

The transition Horenstein witnessed was the fading of this world — many of the bars shuttered and the country-music parks dried up, while the Grand Ole Opry grew bigger, more manicured.

But country music didn't disappear. Alongside Bob Dylan, James Taylor, and the hippie folk and blues revival, it got prettied up and went mainstream. Hee Haw debuted on TV in 1969. By 1977, Parton was on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson joking about her, ahem, healthy body. Over the past decade, country has dominated American Idol and claimed to be the most patriotic music going. But there was a tradeoff, as Horenstein tells me, "more and more generic."

Old photos are always interesting as time capsules. So although Horenstein's artistry is quite good, his pictures get an extra boost from being three decades old, and from nostalgia for a time when country meant smaller, more local, more down-home.

Read Greg Cook's blog at gregcookland.com/journal.

"HONKY TONK" :: Carroll and Sons gallery :: 450 Harrison Ave, Boston :: Through October 20

Related: A walk on the wild side, Photos: Boston's Combat Zone, Burlesque (NSFW), 'New' dance — then and now — gets a full airing on Boston's stages, and on film, More more >
  Topics: Museum And Gallery , Henry Horenstein, arts features
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