In the introduction to his new book, Henry Horenstein corrects a long-held misconception.
“A lot of people assume that country music is a Southern thing. It isn’t; it’s everywhere,” he writes.
Horenstein, 65, a local photographer who teaches a variety of photography and illustration classes at Rhode Island School of Design, is a testament to country music’s reach beyond demographics and geography. He grew up Jewish in New Bedford, where his love of country was nurtured early on by a 1960s folk singer who’s scarcely remembered these days. Paul Clayton, who sang sea shanties and owned a music store where young Horenstein spent some time, recommended he buy a copy of the album “Johnny Cash Sings Hank Williams.”
Thankfully, he did. Otherwise there’s no telling if Horenstein would have captured the compelling black-and-white images collected in “Honky Tonk: Portraits of Country Music.”
To be published Sept. 3 by Norton, the book is a handsome update of the original 2003 edition. It has been redesigned and set in hardback, with the addition of photos Horenstein has taken in the intervening years. Its publication coincides with an exhibit, “Honky Tonk,’’ at Carroll and Sons from Sept. 5 through Oct. 27. (An opening reception will be held at the gallery on Sept. 7.)
“I always liked the stories behind country music,” Horenstein says recently in the South End studio where he lives and works. As he talks about the musicians who fired his imagination — from Johnny Cash to the Lilly Brothers — he pulls out a record or two from his wall of alphabetized LPs. “I had two older sisters who got me into music, and the first album we all contributed to was by Harry Belafonte. That’s calypso music, but it’s really the same thing I loved about country. I like a good story.”
“Honky Tonk” is steeped in the 1970s but stretches to include more recent events. It strikes a balance between the expected locales (bars and honky-tonks in Nashville and tour stops in the South), but also devotes a lot of space to New England and its vibrant country scene around then. Several images were taken at the Hillbilly Ranch in Boston and the Lone Star Ranch in New Hampshire.
“I’m a country music fan, so these photos immediately spoke to me,” says Austin O’Driscoll, an assistant editor at Norton, who oversaw the book. “I’m not usually a portrait fan, but I feel like Henry has a really unobtrusive presence and gravitates toward a particular side of life – kind of dingy but also kind of beautiful. The bar scenes are really my favorite.”
It’s fascinating to see some of Nashville’s marquee acts in a New England setting. Planted at an old Baldwin piano, Jerry Lee Lewis, who had country hits in addition to his rock ’n’ roll ones, sits in profile and lights a long cigar at the Ramada Inn in Boston in 1976 (see g cover). Jeannie C. Riley, the go-go-booted singer of “Harper Valley P.T.A.,” lounges on her posh tour bus in Westport in 1973. From the same year, we see Mother Maybelle Carter intently strumming her autoharp at the Lone Star Ranch. And then there’s shaggy Waylon Jennings looking like the consummate urban cowboy in Cambridge, hunched over his electric guitar, his hand holding a cigarette to his lips.
A dreamlike portrait of Dolly Parton, baby-faced and with her hair piled high, is gripping for its simplicity, but also the small detail of her doe eyes. They appear to look just over Horenstein’s camera, suggesting she wasn’t entirely ready for her close-up in 1972. She wasn’t that well-known beyond country music yet.
That image was taken at Symphony Hall, along with a photo of her singing partner at the time, Porter Wagoner. Horenstein had an hour backstage with her but says he didn’t take too many photos of Parton, admitting he was a little starstruck. “I loved her. I had such a crush on her. I was fresh. I was 25 and didn’t know what I was doing,” he says.
Those are the boldface names, but the book is not especially about its star wattage. Horenstein had an obvious affection for the fans, who, as any country musician will tell you, are the cornerstone of the music. Horenstein’s camera lingered on the faces that were not as famous but were no less interesting. A young waitress at the Hillbilly Ranch is caught mid-service, holding a tray of Slim Jims and potato chips. A pair of rotund lovers mugging for Horenstein at Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge in Nashville are the epitome of old sweethearts.
“I didn’t set out to photograph the stars. I have Dolly in the book, but she wasn’t a star when I took her picture. She was just a girl singer,” Horenstein says. “I probably would have approached it differently if that had been my goal.”
Horenstein got his first camera in 1967, and even at 20, he already knew he wanted his photography to impart a preservationist spirit.
“It’s often true when you’re young that you’re clearer about things than you ever are later. I think that’s one reason why so many great artists and musicians and writers do their best work when they’re young,” he says. “I was very conscious of what I was doing then, and I thought the culture was changing. I missed the boat a little bit because the music didn’t die. In fact, it has come back.”
Horenstein is by no means strictly a music photojournalist. Quite the opposite. He has documented various topics over the years, from animals to boxers to burlesque performers. He sort of stumbled into chronicling the country scene. One of his professors asked him what he liked to do. When Horenstein mentioned seeing country music, his mentor gave him a directive: Photograph that stuff. He was already seeing the shows anyway, so Horenstein figured he might as well.
“I’m sure I could have done better. I know how to do these things now. If I do a project, I know how to get it done,” he says. “I didn’t know [expletive] then, basically. I would probably do it a little more smoothly now, but I might not have done it as much from the heart.”