by Amanda Gorence
For every picture there is a story. For Boston based photographer Henry Horenstein, there are many; pictures and stories that is. At once historian and photographer, Horenstein documents the changing world of country music from 1972 to the present in his monograph, Honky Tonk: Portraits of Country Music, released in a second edition this month by W.W. Norton & Co.
Originally set to accomplish a PhD in history at the University of Chicago and embark on an academic career, Horenstein became interested in photography in his junior year of college. He entered into the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) and studied under photographers Harry Callahan and Aaron Siskind, completing his MFA in 1973. He might have started a new path, however it was one rooted in his interests; “I always kept what I learned as a historian in mind as I tried to gure out how to make the uncertain transition from academic to artist.” At RISD, Horenstein had many influential teachers, Callahan being an important one, advising Horenstein to photograph the people and places he was naturally drawn to. This simple idea explains a lot when it comes to Honky Tonk and Horenstein, ardent music fan that he is. It is undeniably clear the passion that he has for the music, the fans, the performers, the scene, and the history. Perhaps that is why these photographs ring so true in their purity, joy and energy.
We know this project started on genuine interest, but there was something more there for Horenstein. The 1970s have been referred to as the last great decade of country music. In many ways, Horenstein knew he was witnessing something that would undoubtedly change; “I always saw this as a disappearing world that I wanted to preserve on film. As I look back, many years later, it’s sad to see that I wasn’t far off. Many of the people and places pictured here are long gone, though some have adjusted and survived.” Thanks to Hohenstein, we have an incredibly large archive of images to summon the past.
Spanning over four decades, the photographs take us everywhere, journeying from bluegrass festivals, country music parks, honky tonks, and dance halls to late nights at the famous Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge in Nashville and backstage at the Ryman Auditorium during the Grand Ole Opry shows.
“Tootsie’s was the quintessential honky tonk,” Horenstein says. “It still is. People used to come from all over to meet people, meet the stars, show off what they did, play harmonica, drink beer, Lord knows what. I came for many of the same reasons, but I also came to take pictures.” Along the way, he also worked for Massachusetts-based Rounder Records shooting album covers, a gig that sent him on a number of visits to Nashville.
Honky Tonk is an incredibly vast and full body of work, not only spanning time and place, but also capturing the myriad of performers and fans that was so integral to its heyday. One of Horenstein’s first photographs in this project is a young and bright Dolly Parton at Symphony Hall in Boston in 1972. He went on to capture plenty more big names; Waylon Jennings, Hank Williams, Jr., Loretta Lynn, Emmylou Harris, Jerry Lee Lewis, as well as countless other small town gems around the country. “Meeting Dolly Parton was certainly the most striking memory. But meeting lesser-known performers like Preacher Jack was also amazing. And especially old timers like Mother Maybelle Carter or the Blue Sky Boys.” Equally important as the performers are the decades of devoted fans, venues, and everyday people that Hohenstein weaves throughout the work. Oftentimes taking center stage with their colorful personalities, they reinforce what we already know–that Horenstein has truly created a time capsule of a very specific world at a very specific point in history. But what sets his time capsule apart from so many others is that he manages to get the whole enchilada: the glitz and glam of the country legends as well as the down home feel of the dive bar and the die hard music lovers within. “The performers were very interesting of course, but meeting people who love the music and for whom music was so important was a huge part of my intent for the project,” says Horenstein. Rich with character, culture and story, Honky Tonk is a piece of Americana we are truly grateful Horenstein has preserved.