HonkyTonk: Portraits of Country Music 1972-1981

Henry Horenstein
HonkyTonk: Portraits of Country Music 1972-1981
Forward by Eddie Stubbs; Afterward by Charles McGovern
San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 2003. 144 pp., $24.95

Review by Art Menius

Original publication in Bluegrass Unlimited

Timing often truly is everything. Although the often stunning black and white images of country music artists and fans span 1967 to 1981, most of Henry Horenstein’s photographs reproduced in HonkyTonk come from 1972 through 1974. That period marked not only Watergate, the end of the Vietnam War, and a remarkable burst of creativity by Horenstein, but a period of serious transition in country music. The Massachusetts native thus captured the last of how it was. The Opry still resided at the Ryman, while surviving country music parks still drew loyal crowds for the bluegrass and traditional country artists whose records were still being released by major labels. Bluegrass festivals grew and spread, and genuine honkytonks still presented live country and bluegrass.

During this time Horenstein shot for album covers and magazines, while seriously trying to document the disappearing culture. Bluegrass fans of a certain age best know Horenstein for the cover photo of the Johnson Mountain Boys’ Rounder album The Walls of Time, the most recent shot in the book. By the time it appeared, Horenstein seems to have lost interest as country music and its venues changed for the worse, and the acts he loved lost their recording deals, died, or quit touring. During his music period Horenstein hunted, and often caught, the heart of Saturday night. HonkyTonk offers images worth repeated viewing of musicians, music dives and the patrons thereof, the Grand Ole Opry, and country music parks and bluegrass festivals.

He provides memorable portraits of stars including a strung out Waylon Jennings, Nathan Abshire, Curley Ray Cline and Ralph Stanley at their respective homes, DeFord Bailey on a rare visit to the Opry, Del McCoury with his bus, John Duffey wearing a “Super Fart” t-shirt, Hank Williams, Jr. leaving his bus at New Hampshire’s Lone Star Ranch, and so many more. My favorite also comes from Lone Star Ranch. An inebriated looking Ernest Tubb, felt tip pen in his pocket to sign autographs, makes his way through fans, a devilish grin on his face and a steadying hand on his right arm. A woman simultaneously grasps his hand with both of hers and looks on disapprovingly. A boy looks up at ET in wonderment, awe, and disgust.

Lots of books, however, have great photos of the artists. What makes HonkyTonk a masterpiece of a genre that has gained increasing momentum since the publication of Les Leverett’s Blue Moon of Kentucky is his preternaturally powerful eye of bluegrass and classic country venues and fans. Mere days before the Opry moved to the park, a sitting Tootsie holds open the front door of her Orchard Lounge, whistle in hand to announce closing time. The “Tootsie’s Orchard” written on the cigarette machine behind points directly to her strange headgear. In the shadows outside the door, a young couple talks on the Broadway sidewalk. Two well dressed and well coiffed women wait impatiently in the inadequate backstage of the Ryman. Aware of the photographer, their faces are studies in dispassion. A solid group of middle and working class middle-aged Americans and one seriously deranged looking young man wait to enter the Ryman underneath the “WSM Grand Ole Opry” sign. A copiously tattooed man with greasy hair and large, sensitive-looking eyes has gone through at least three drinks and a pack of Kools at Boston’s Hillbilly Ranch.

Those who were there thirty years ago no doubt need Horenstein’s photographs to jar their memories. Those who missed these times or places simply must feast upon the images in HonkyTonk. This is the bluegrass book to give this holiday season. AM

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