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Honky Tonk: Portraits of Country Music 1972-1981

By Henry Horenstein

Chronicle Books, 144 pages, $24.95 softcover

Reviewed by Stuart Munro, November 2003

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Henry Horenstein's "Honky Tonk" is a pretty fabulous collection of country music photographs. But it's a lot more than that. In his pictures, Horenstein is trying to capture something essential about the music, about its ethos, during the period covered by the book. He points out that the intention animating his work is to be a historian with a camera; "all along," he says, "I saw all this" - people and places he was photographing - "as a disappearing world that I wanted to preserve on film."

This book is the result. At first glance, Horenstein might appear to be an unlikely chronicler, but as he points out, country music is everywhere, and it got hold of him in New Bedford, Mass., at an early age. When as a young adult he took up photography, he turned to taking pictures of what he liked and knew best, while spending a good deal of his spare time in the venues where country music could be found.

There he took note not just of the artists, but of the people who came to see them, the fans, and of the places they came to. He attended bluegrass festivals and frequented country music parks. He visited the sacred - the "mother church" of country music, the Ryman Auditorium, then the home of the Grand Ole Opry - and the profane, the rough-house honky tonks where, he points out, in their heyday one could find "live music, alcohol, romance, divorce, friendship and brawling."

And all the while, he took pictures that document the country music culture of the time, and one particularly enduring aspect of it: the peculiar and immediate relationship that exists between country artists and their fans.

None of the book's photographs captures this better than one of Ernest Tubb -or rather, of Tubb, surrounded by fans after a performance, conversing and signing autographs; ET himself is completely invisible in the shot, and we only know it's him because his tour bus, with his name emblazoned across the front, looms in the background.

Of course, Horenstein also took plenty of photos of the artists, and not simply of the most famous, but of the lesser known, the long forgotten and the sidemen as well. The bulk of the book, in fact, is shots of artists, collected under the heading "Pickin' and Singin'," that is entertaining (although very few of the pictures are of artists actually performing).

Hank Snow, Roy Acuff, Bill Monroe (and, on the facing page, brother Charlie), Kitty Wells, Mother Maybelle Carter; Ralph Stanley, a young Del McCoury, Lester Flatt; Stringbean, DeFord Bailey, Mac Wiseman, the Blue Sky Boys and many more, are represented. These photos, too, are not organized without purpose. The pictures of country music's most famous duets, for example - Porter and Dolly, George and Tammy, Conway and Loretta - are placed on facing pages.

And in one particularly striking juxtaposition, Horenstein puts a photo of a dissolute Waylon Jennings adjacent to one of Anne Murray, a pairing that illustrates about as well as anything could the breadth of country music world in which he moved.

Horenstein says that he was motivated by a concern that this world was disappearing. It's an overstatement to say that it is entirely gone; vestiges of it can still be found at remaining country music parks, at county fairs, in the still-thriving bluegrass festival scene and elsewhere. But many aspects of it have faded. Henry Horenstein's striking photographs help us to remember.