Long Journey Home: The Bluegrass Chronicles of Les Leverett
By Art Menius
Behind the wheel of his modest sedan, Les Leverett provides an unforgettable and highly personal Nashville area tour guide. Meandering through Madison and Goodlettsville, a visitor hopes he remembers to do some driving among the talking and pointing. When he indicates the site of Jack Anglin’s fatal wreck on the way to Patsy Cline’s funeral, it’s hard not to harbor a few concerns about the timing of one’s own burial. Conversation turns to more mundane subjects that point out how Dot and Les Leverett are very much ordinary southerners in their seventies who love church, children, bluegrass music, America, neighbors and friends, the Grand Ole Opry, and cafeteria food. Then south of downtown, between Baptist Hospital and the once thriving Music Row, a billboard promoting a Cline reissue with Les’ stunning image of the star reminds the passengers that their driver remains the most noted country and bluegrass music photographers.
Something has to remind you for Les certainly won’t blow his own horn. Caring, generous, and modest with just the subtlest suggestion of hot-headedness, Les has nothing to do with self-aggrandizement. He just did his job, an honest day’s work for an honest day’s pay. That job, which included thirty-two years as the photographer for the Grand Ole Opry, happened to yield images that will be enjoyed for decades to come. And those images happened to bring Leverett a Grammy in 1966, an IBMA Distinguished Achievement Award in October 2001, a 1973 Billboard award for country album cover of the year, and the first significant American book of bluegrass photographs. An Internet search reported that 47 CDs available in August 2002 featuring photography by Leverett. The artists include such giants as Ernest Tubb, Flatt & Scruggs, Bill Monroe, and Patsy Cline.
Many folks discovered Les’ name when the International Bluegrass Music Museum originally opened in Owensboro, Kentucky. A collection of his black and white images formed the centerpiece of the first incarnation of the museum collection. Dr. Charles Wolfe, then a trustee of the IBMM, contacted Les about a photo exhibit for the grand opening of the museum. Les was reticent to do new images, explaining that he had retired in as a photographer with National Life and Opryland. “Then Charles told me about Dr. Tom Adler, who was the director of the museum. Dr. Adler called and said he would help me with.”
So Les acquiesced and went through his archives. Dr. Wolfe helped him go through negatives until they got it down to forty-four pictures. “The museum had them matted and framed. Dr. Adler and his son came down here and got them just in the nick of time [for the opening]. I like the way they looked up there.” When the IBMM initially opened, Les’ images generated countless discussions. Every visitor seemed to champion a personal favorite or six and readily extolled their virtues – Jake Tullock’s haunting eyes in a 1963 shot of the Martha White show, Lester & Earl at the diner, Jimmy Arnold and Tommy Jarrell jamming while Kenny Baker watch, one of several great images from Bean Blossom 1970, Bill Monroe with his horse or with Colonel Sanders, Ralph Stanley looking back at the camera, or a long haired Sam Bush with his friend Roy Acuff in 1972, one wearing a headband, the other a shirt and tie. When the museum reopened in April 2002 with vastly expanded and improved offerings, the Leverett photos could be found on the second floor in the room designated for rotating exhibits.
A sticky summer night in 1997 found Les autographing copies of his book, Blue Moon of Kentucky, in the new lobby of the Ryman before a concert featuring the Osborne Brothers and Jim & Jesse. He appeared palpably happy and clearly at ease meeting folks who love bluegrass music and, thus, connect with his images. “A mother came up with a young son and said that he had wanted that book for Christmas, and she could not find it. So the kid knew about it from somewhere, and I autographed one for him right there. I had two different people who had bought books from me months and months before at the Ernest Tubb Record Shop and said they loved the book. That’s all I wanted to know — that they’re happy to have it.”
The book came as direct result of the IBMM exhibit. Dr. Adler suggested a small book to sell in the gift shop. Les shared the book idea with a Californian who, being in the photography book business, offered to publish it. After a year, the fellow had done captions for all the images, but nothing else. “My friend Don Key, in North Carolina, called me and said that our mutual friend had called him and asked if he wanted to co-publish my book. Don said, ‘No. I don’t co-publish. I want to work on my own stuff.’ Don said he would like to publish it if I could get it away from our friend.” That was arranged with one phone call. Dot and Les spent many tedious hours proofing the blue lines sent by Key’s Empire Publishing of Madison, North Carolina. Empire, which specializes in western movie books, also published Becky Johnson’s Inside Bluegrass.
“Don wanted to call the book Blue Moon of Kentucky. I asked why he wanted to do that, and he said because it says bluegrass. We were going to call it by Dr. Wolfe’s name for that exhibit, ‘Long Journey Home: The Bluegrass Chronicle of Les Leverett.’ Don asked if I had a better title, and I didn’t.” Blue Moon of Kentucky appeared in October 1996 with a special dedication to the late Bill Monroe, who had contributed a blurb for the back cover — “I am for him 100%. I have always liked him to capture my spirit in his photographs.”
“It’s been a successful book. It has sold faster than anything Empire has done. We’re very happy with it. I wish the printer had done a better job. It is an acceptable job and, in some cases, a really good printing job. In other cases, it is not. Some of my favorite pictures in there are kind of washed out, and they should not be that way. I have gotten a lot of publicity from that thing. TNN has done me a couple of jobs on it. St. Louis Post-Dispatch did a story. Country Weekly magazine did a big story, about four or five pages of pictures and stories. I’ve been on various radio stations around the country. It never was about the money. You never make money out of a book, hardly anybody does. It has been a lot of fun, and I have met a lot of people.”
The pictures in the book cover 1961 through 1994. A 1974 image captures Alan O’Bryant, Mike Hartgrove, and Billy and Terry Smith, instruments in hand and ready to pick at ages 14 through 18. Ready to take on the world, Grove stares defiantly at the camera, while Alan’s visage suggests a sense of wonderment about the future. The shots the book’s second half, which complies photos not used in the IBMM exhibit, include Cline, Acuff, Haggard, Fiddling Sid Harkreader, and even Louis Armstrong (jamming with Johnny Cash on TV) and George Burns (with Loretta Lynn). One of the earliest compositions depicts six ladies of the Grand Ole Opry including Minnie Pearl, Wilma Lee Cooper, and Kitty Wells. Working with such stars had to prove satisfying for Les who had grown up listening to the Opry.
Leverett grew up in southern Alabama, some thirty miles northeast of Mobile. “It was agricultural. When I got out of school in the spring, I went straight to work in the potato sheds, grading potatoes, sacking potatoes, hauling potatoes, taking them off the lines, and putting them on the box cars. They paid us about 24 cents an hour. My daddy, who was a Baptist evangelist, had an old Stewart-Warner radio. I remember him skinning a couple of pine trees and putting them up way down in the back garden area, and putting some glass insulators out there, and hanging a wire from one of those to another and bringing the wire into the house to use for an aerial. He took another wire under the house and drilled a hole in the floor and made a ground. Every Saturday night we listened to the Grand Ole Opry. And some of those names I heard coming across the airwaves like Sam & Kirk McGee from sunny Tennessee. I remember David Cobb, who was an announcer, and Louie Buck and the Solemn Ole Judge, and, of course, people like Acuff, Minnie Pearl. From a little, bitty boy I remember the Fruit Jar Drinkers, the Gully Jumpers, and the Possum Hunters. I remember those names. I remember hearing DeFord Bailey play that harmonica on the Opry. I’m talking 1934, ’35, ’36, along in there. My daddy would whip up a big ole freezer of ice cream and invite neighbors over to sit around and eat ice cream and listen to the Opry. My mother would put a pallet on the floor and my sister, who was two years younger, and I would lay on that pallet until we fell asleep and they took us off to bed. That’s my earliest remembrances of the Grand Ole Opry and country music. I used to listen to it a lot as a young teenager.” Soon, however, Les was buying Stan Kenton and Louis Jordan, Dorsey, Miller, Harry James, Lionel Hampton, Cab Calloway, “and stuff like that, more so than country.”
Eighteen in April of 1945, World War II ended during his last week of basic training. The Army having determined Les would be a good surgical technician, he worked 18 months in the hospital section of a troop carrier that hauled fresh men to Europe, and later Korea, and brought back either POWs or weary vets. On the ship, he quickly came to share some of his comrades’ interest in photography.
Les had gotten interested in lenses experimenting with those from a pair of Civil War binoculars that his dad owned, eventually building his own wooden projector. Les’ boss on the troop ship knew a little bit about photography and a lot about selling PX cigarettes to Italian civilians at great profit. Les used this income to buy a box camera, contact paper, and dark room supplies. By the time he was discharged in early 1947, “I had determined that I wanted to be a photographer, and I was buying those photographic magazines. I found an ad for a school in San Antonio and said, ‘boy, this would be a great place to go.’ That’s where I went to photographic school under the GI Bill.”
Les then got a gig at a portrait studio in San Antonio, where he met his wife, Dot, a Nashville native who worked for National Life & Accident Insurance Company, which owned WSM and the Grand Ole Opry for more than a half-century. In 1947 she had transferred to the National Life office in San Antonio to be near her parents, who had moved there in search, like Jimmie Rodgers, of a healthier climate. Les’ roommate’s sweetheart worked with Dot, and that couple eventually wrangled Les and Dot into a blind date on September 4, 1948. “Five months later to the day, we were married.” More than a fifty years later, Dot and Les provide an inspiring example of couple that has only grown closer over the years. Their union produced three children Libby Leverett-Crew, herself a successful photographer, Gary, a long time Opry stagehand, and John, whom they lost in a March 2001 car wreck.
Cowboy movies made Tex Ritter one of young Leverett’s heroes. In San Antonio, a few months before that blind date with Dot, Ritter and his band played between showings of a movie downtown. He got Tex to give his date an autograph. “That was the first time I met him, back in 1948. Tex came to the Opry in 1965, not only as an Opry star, but as co-host of the late night radio program on WSM. They let Ralph Emery come back because he wanted to be on that late night show again with Tex Ritter. If I was working late in my dark room and got a little break, I would walk up there and sit down and chat with Tex. It got to be where I could not do that and try to leave without Tex going, ‘Come back here! Sit down here. I’m not through with you yet.’ He even put me on the air. The first time Ralph Emery put me on the air, and it nearly scared me to death. But I got to where I was used to it, and Tex became a real friend.”
In Texas, Les fell under the sway of western swing music. “I carried a big, ole portable radio with me on the Greyhound to San Antonio, and I listened to the country and western music they had out there. Well, sir, the first date that I had with Dot, that gang at the boarding house said that Saturday night we’re going to the Alamo Club to hear Bob Wills play for a dance.”
Dot agreed to go, asking who Wills was. “We went out to the club, and that was a night to remember. I carried a dollar bill down there and got Bob Wills to autograph it, and Tommy Duncan autographed it…. Right there in San Antonio is where I really got into that country and western music. It wasn’t long until I was buying an occasional Bob Wills 78 on MGM.”
Dot used to tell Les about the country stars whom she had met working at National Life in Nashville when they appeared on WSM’s “Noontime Neighbors”. Dot was a Vandiver, but when Bill Monroe, who had a reputation among the women at National Life home office, first spoke to her about their possible kinship, she thought he was just trying to pick her up. “She was very sharp and very cool with him,” and maintained that belief until a surprised Les heard Bill talk about his uncle as an intro to “Uncle Pen” in 1960. “In later years, she and Bill would get together and talk about Vandivers. “I not sure if they ever dug up a kinship, but we loved Bill Monroe. I went to see him 13 days before he died up there at that rehabilitation hospital. I always remember that. It was sad, yet I was glad that I was able to get there and do it.”
Les left the $25 a week job at the portrait studio for a $35 per week position at a wholesale dry goods store because he needed more income to get married. Dot made $37.50 the week. Her father soon died, and the newlyweds soon followed her mother to Nashville in November 1950. In 1952 Les took a second job making advertising photos for a department store in Nashville. “Then I saw an ad from a place called Associated Photographers looking for a commercial photographer.” It turned out they had been curious about who had the department store job, and they quickly hired Les for more than $100 a week. “I stayed there from the middle of 1952 through 1956, when he could no longer afford me as the business went bankrupt.” Les’ career was soon to change, however, taking him to the stage of the Grand Ole Opry.
“I was working at Frederick’s Studio from October 1956 until March of 1960. Hylo Brown called and made an appointment to come in and have a portrait made. I asked my boss lady to let me shoot that. He was almost a neighbor of ours; so I knew who he was and made the portrait and got to know the guy. Years later I did a cover for an LP that he did. I guess that was my first touch with it, except that when I worked at Associated Photographers, Del Wood came out there for a portrait and I stayed and helped my boss with the lights. Then one night Eddy Arnold and the Willis Brothers came out to the studio. My boss shot that, but I watched all of it and tried to help with the retouching. Eddy looked over my shoulder to find out what I was doing with the retouching.
“In 1960 I went to work at National Life. I had done a lot of work for National Life and gotten to know everyone there when I was working for Associated Photographers because that was one of our accounts…. In January 1960 I ran into Les Bonard, who edited the periodicals for National Life. He told me that Kyle Stamper, who was the boss of the publications department, was thinking about hiring a photographer and opening a dark room. I told him I appreciated the tip, but I was working down here at Frederick’s Studio six days a week for $85 a week. It was bad. Yet at the same time, I thought that if I went to National Life all the photos would be pin presentations and baby showers. I didn’t think I’d like that at all. Then my old boss called me and said that he had some equipment he wanted to sell and if I would convince these people to buy his equipment, he’d tell me who was looking to hire. I already knew it was National Life, but his boom light I was in love with. I thought I would be sure to convince them to buy it…. I was still thinking pin presentations and baby showers, but two people had told me about it and maybe God was trying to tell me something.
“I went up there to talk to Kyle Stamper, and he was a crusty ole bird. I loved him as much as anything because he was a straight a shooter as you ever met. You never had to doubt how you fit in his plans or what his opinion was. He said that whoever takes this job is going to replace four photographers. They’re going to be doing National Life, WSM radio, WSM-TV, and the Grand Ole Opry. The minute he said ‘WSM-TV and the Grand Ole Opry,’ something clicked inside of me, and I wanted that job.
“I kept worrying Mr. Stamper. I’d call him every week, sometimes twice a week…. I went up there unannounced one Monday, knowing Mondays are one of the worst days for executives. Kyle Stamper was sort of a Lionel Barrymore character, he slammed his hand across his face and said ‘Come on. Let’s go down to the Personnel Department.’ They started me out at $90 a week, and I complained. He said, ‘Take the money and in six months I’ll get you a raise. You won’t have to wait a year like most folks.’ True to his word, at the end of six months he gave me a $25 a month raise and at the end of the first year he gave me another $25 a month raise. Slowly we built up to where I almost had a living salary.
“We worked a 35 hour week at National Life. Above that they paid you regular time to forty hours, and then time and a half beyond forty. Then I started getting overtime for going to the Opry on Friday or Saturday night. WSM television would work me a lot in the daytime, but I sent one of my men out there a lot to the noon show. You could never tell who would be on that noon show. It could be Bobby Kennedy or Count Basie. When politicians came to town, I had to photograph Channel-4 covering it. I shot…. I photographed every president from John Kennedy through the first George Bush. But most of my work was for National Life.
“Every Friday or Saturday I would have to go to Opry and make pictures of ‘Mr. DJ USA,’ who was a visiting DJ. I made four pictures of the guest with Opry stars. Trudy said don’t do any more than four, because she was having to pay fifty cents a piece for those prints. She would mail copies to that guy, and he would put them in his local papers. Tom Cat Reeder was my first ‘Mr. DJ USA.’
“I was almost new to live country music when I went to work at National Life. The first impression I had of Bill Monroe’s groups was when they walked out on the stage: they were dressed. They looked super good. Dark suits, white hats, and they had on boots. They impressed me because they were so sharp. Then they impressed me as to how they worked together to playing those tunes and singing those songs. They played together, and that’s what grabbed me about them.”
Les “got to noticing Lester and Earl, because I had already seen them on their TV show. I loved the way those guys played to a microphone. It was like watching ballet dancers. Each one did his own thing at the very split second he had to. I always waited for the day that Paul Warren’s fiddle would poke Lester Flatt in the eye, and it never did.”
Soon Les would achieve a career highpoint on the road with Lester Flatt, Earl Scruggs, and the Foggy Mountain Boys. Frank McGee, the NBC newsman who had moderated the Nixon-Kennedy debates and would later host the “Today” show, was doing a new series for NBC-TV, “Here & Now.” “For some reason, thank God, somebody wanted to do a thing on Flatt & Scruggs. Being employed by WSM-TV, the NBC affiliate, provided a source for easy, handy, and inexpensive photos for that program. Little did they know that they were marking up one of the highlights of my life.
“So I went on two trips with Lester and Earl. The first one went to Cave City, Kentucky. They entertained on top of the concession stand at a drive in theater. It was wonderful. Lightning bugs, candleflies, and all those bugs flying all around! It was something. The NBC crew had a ball; they loved it. Only technicians, the cameraman, and the director went with us. Frank McGee was in New York. A few days later, we went down to Jumpertown, Mississippi, for them to play at a high school auditorium. That’s the perfect place for NBC. On the way down to Jumpertown, we stopped for lunch at a little roadside café. The NBC crew got their pictures and lights out and made a picture of them sitting there at the counter eating their lunch, and I made pictures, too.”
The image used in the book and exhibit makes as strong a statement as any Edward Hopper painting of a similar scene. At 2:46 PM on August 25, 1961 Paul Warren and Curley Sechler sit with Lester and Earl at the counter. At first glance the scene seems completely natural. Only the clothes and the cash register date it. The fiddler and banjoman have finished, while the other two are enjoying some pie. The waitress, her hair helmeted by a black net that seems of one piece with the black rims of her glasses, speaks to Scruggs, her left hand a blur as she reaches to ring up their bill. Then one notices unnatural details. The light passes from the viewer’s left to right over the musicians. Paul’s right hand slides toward a countertop cigarette rack, a slight, enigmatic grin that betraying his awareness of the cameras. Over his right shoulder we can see two men observing, one at a table glancing slyly, the other staring directly from a booth. Not only have famous musicians visited this roadside café, they have brought along the then novel intrusion of a TV crew. The cameras are recording the musicians’ dining experience, creating an unreal situation obvious only to the subjects. That photo alone confirms Dr. Wolfe’s assertion that Leverett is an “artist who is able to work within the commercial industry and at the same time express his own imagination and vision.” The same day produced a memorable shot of Flatt and Scruggs reading fan mail on the bus.
The work for National Life and its various enterprises proved extensive and after two years, “they hired the most wonderful man to help me by the name of Bev LaTroy, who worked around the corner on the same floor WSM radio was on…. It was downtown at 7th and Union. They built me a nice darkroom and a monster studio.” Bev, a musician in the “Waking Crew” orchestra on WSM, took evening work away from Les. Soon they added a third person, Marvin Cartright, who came from the printing department. With him came a giant graphics camera and “pretty soon we were doing the halftone negatives for the printing department and a lot of stuff for the art department. We were a real asset to that company, and Mr. Stamper said that creating that department was what he would be remembered for. He was proud of our program, and I was proud that he was proud.”
His work soon led to a career sideline that would result in some of Les’ greatest recognition. “When I first went up there we were doing books, Opry picture books. Trudy Stamper, the wife of the man who had hired me, was the PR person at the Opry. She kept gathering up these Opry stars – ‘How many more can you take tomorrow?’ She would line them up, and I was shooting black and whites. Then I got the two and a quarter and started shooting color. Porter Wagoner came in wearing a gold suit with that yellow pompadour hair, and I put him against a blue background, and it was startling. I said, ‘Man, this sure would make a good album cover,’ and it stuck in Porter’s brain. It wasn’t too much longer that he called me and said, ‘Les, RCA is doing an album called The Thin Man from West Plains. Could you bring one of those photographs you took of me over here and let Bob Ferguson and Chet Atkins take a look at it?’ That was my first paid album cover. I had done one on Lightnin’ Chance for Trudy Stamper one time while they were changing the stage at the Opry, and Lightnin’ ran out there with his bass and stood like he was performing on the Opry. I shot that, and he did a comedy album.”
Wagoner became a regular customer for Leverett’s cover shots. An image in Blue Moon of Kentucky shows Porter getting Hank Snow’s opinion of Les’ cover art for Highway Headed South. The time is January 1974; the place a small room backstage at the Opry during the last days of the Ryman as its home.
“Porter did an album in 1966 called Confessions of a Broken Man, that was a result of a hit called ‘Skid Row Joe.’ Ferguson was his producer. He was senior producer over at RCA. Bob called me and explained the idea of doing an album cover with Porter dressed up as Skid Row Joe – washed out, tired, drunk, if you may. He’s a bum. We agreed to go down to the steps at the back of the Ryman one afternoon so that the sun would be away, and it would be nice, soft lighting. Knowing the fact that this was a sad album – recitations, men with broken hearts — and knowing that Ektakrome film in the daylight will give you a kind of blue cast when you are away from the sun, especially late in the day, I chose to use that. That doggone cover went on to when the Grammy for Album Cover of the Year from NARAS, much to everybody’s surprise. The first time a Nashville photographer ever won that award. They changed the qualifications so that it is for the whole package and the Grammy goes to the art director, not the photographer. Then in 1973 I won the Billboard County Cover of the Year for a thing on Dolly Parton.
“Nowadays they take so many photos for a CD package. They spend a lot of time and a lot of money. In the old days we did one picture, or I’d shoot one twelve-exposure roll of two and a quarter film. We were always in a hurry for time, or we only had the one place we could shoot it, or said, ‘What the heck, if you don’t get it in twelve shots, what are you going to do?’” Les was paid $200 for the Confessions of a Broken Man cover and another $200 for the cover of a sequel using an image from the same photo session.
“You know what I tell people – you can take that Grammy and $1.80 and ride any bus in Nashville. That’s the highest honor I’ve ever received for photography, and it has sentimental value for me. They tell me that when they announced my name at our NARAS awards at the country club, Tex Ritter told the people at his table, ‘Oh, no! Oh, no! Oh, no! I can’t believe it. Oh, no!’
“Ralph Emery had a live afternoon TV show at that time. He came up to the stage, tapped me on the toe and asked me to be on his show the next day. I was feeling so brave, I said yes. Later I was scared to death.” Ronnie Dove, Ernest Tubb, and Ritter were Ralph’s guests that day. “When Tex saw me standing there holding the Grammy, he comes over and says, ‘Let me see it!’ He took that thing, and he fondled it, and turned it, and read the inscription. Here’s a man who had made million movies from 1936 right on. He has starred on Broadway. He has been on radio and television. He sang the ‘High Noon’ theme song that won the Oscar. Of all the things in the world, the man never won a Grammy. And I, a little ole dinky photographer from Cottontown down in Alabama, am the possessor of a Grammy. I was thinking, ‘It’s obscene that Tex Ritter doesn’t own that thing.’ Tex Ritter stood there and handled that thing, and to me, that was like putting 24 carat gold on that thing.”
Les found a way to stay with the Opry when change swept through National Life. “I served there through 1983 when the American General Life & Accident took over the National Life Insurance Company… and there went our company down the tubes. I didn’t like working for American General at all when I saw whole departments being closed or moved away. It really worried me, and I got to where I could hardly sleep at night. American General had put the WSM and Opry on the block because they were not interested in entertainment and hospitality. The Nashville Network had just been created and was a big red hole in the books. Ed Gaylord from Oklahoma City, who owned the Daily Oklahoman, wrote a check for $270 million and bought the whole of Opryland, including the Opry and TNN.
“So I called Bud Wendell, who at that time was CEO at Opryland and who had been my friend since he came to the National Life home office, and said ‘I am leaving this mess. I am not going to stay up here and work, and I need a job.’ True to his word, he called me back in a couple of weeks and said, ‘Yes, they want you,’ but I didn’t know what I would be doing. I wanted to be full time Opry, promoting the Opry, maintaining the Opry picture book, which is an ongoing task, and keeping the portraits up to date. They put me at the Opryland Hotel, and I had 100 months before I reached 65 and could hit the silk. I went all out in those 100 months at Opryland Hotel and very honestly, I thought it would kill me. I went there the first of January 1984. In November of ’87 I had a heart attack on the job. A few days later they did a quintuple bypass on me. In two months I was back on a part time basis, never to do the heavy work I had done before. I had a string of photographers to call in to help me when we had a lot of convention work, but I ran that little office all by myself. I had no secretary. It was just about more than I could handle. I worked really hard for eight solid years, and I have been retired since April 12, 1992.”
Leverett documented, of course, the opening of the new Opry House in 1974. He found that both the Ryman Auditorium and the newer Opry House had their advantages for the staff photographer. “I got so used to that Ryman. Oft times, instead of making my way through whoever happened to be backstage to get to that back door, to run out into that audience, and take a right and run down that wall to get to the stage, I would just go and walk the stage right there. I would ease down just off center over to the edge of the stage, and I would jump back up there to get my stuff. I had to be backstage, had to be out front. I did it all right there. At the new house, I only went over those lights one time. I decided then I’d never do it again, because I tripped and darn near lost control. I had already jumped over a wall out there at Opryland in 1976 and broke a knee all to pieces.
“At the new place they went to bright, incandescent lights, and if they are really shining, it is the greatest place in the world. If those guys are working on dim up there, it is hard to photograph. I have hardly ever used a flash from out front. I have always used available light. When both those spotlights at the new Opry House are working, that’s the perfect place. You knew what your exposure was. You knew how to set your lens. At the Ryman, they had arc lights, which was daylight. If you were shooting color down there at that old Ryman, you’d use daylight film. They had those hot, hot, hot monster, looked like cannons, arc lights, and they were burning. At the new place I used daylight anyway because it gave me a warmer image. If you used indoor color film out there, it was more natural. The door is closer to the front of the stage in the new house. You can just scoot in and out. I love the new place, but my old knees got to where it was hard the last few years.”
Once retired, Les pretty much quit making photos. In 1994, after much arm-twisting, Les did an album cover shoot in Rosine for Bill Evans solo album. Soon thereafter Jimmy Campbell contacted Les to do the same for him. Les again said he didn’t do that anymore. “Jimmy said, ‘Les, us bluegrass guys aren’t going to let you quit work! I just want you to go up to Mr. Bill’s one day and shoot a roll of black and white of me, Mr. Monroe, and my son Casey….’ Then the record company, Red Clay, said they wanted the photos hand colored. So I did it, and it turned out to be a really good keepsake CD cover. Then Billy Smith called wanting the same thing for Billy & Terry’s Red Clay CD.” Among others, so did Charlie Sizemore, Leroy Troy, and Karl Shifflett.
“They just keep coming and I keep saying I’m not doing any more. That’s the limit of my photography. I’ve been retired ten years and loving every minute of it. I would highly recommend it to anybody that’s able. I lease photographs to books, magazines, video production companies, and record companies. These things just keep happening,” including cover images of Cline, Monroe, Flatt & Scruggs, and Dolly Parton. His clients have ranged from MCA Records to Bear Family, Time-Life to American Heritage and Country Weekly. His images have appeared in TNN and CMT programming. “That’s the only photography I do anymore – leasing stuff – except for occasional bluegrass friends. I don’t want my pictures on a CD where anyone can get them. I live on Social Security, retirement, and what I can make renting pictures. I’m not going to give that stuff away.”
In retirement and with the passing or retirement of many of his country favorites, Les and Dot have gravitated more and more to their family in the bluegrass world. They frequently attend both the IBMA World of Bluegrass in Louisville and the Bluegrass Bash in Owensboro. “Country music has lost a lot of its flavor to me. Today every act sounds like the next act to me. Lefty Frizzell had his own sound. Roy Acuff, Ernest Tubb, Tex Ritter all had there own sound, and when you heard the first word out of their mouths on a record, you didn’t have to wonder who it was. I think bluegrass music is where it is at nowadays. Your best musicians in all the world are in bluegrass music. I just got my ballot for the IBMA Awards, and I can’t even face it. How are you going to choose among some of these folks? Not only are they great musicians, in a lot of cases these people are your friends.” And when you have made as many friends as Les and Dot, that proves a serious issue.