There should be a jukebox tucked in the corner of Endicott College’s Manninen Center for the Arts Heftler Visiting Artist Gallery, one loaded with songs by the country music favorites whose portraits adorn the compact gallery’s walls. Dolly Parton, Bill Monroe, Loretta Lynn, Waylon Jennings and Doc Watson are all there, looking young and fresh and ready to break into toothy, foottapping song. “Honky Tonk: Portraits of Country Music” is a collection of 27 black and white photographs taken between 1968 and 2010 by Henry Hornstein, a 67-yearold New Bedford native who teaches photography and illustration at Rhode Island School of Design. His photos document the changing world of country music and its fans, and reflect his deep love for the music, its performers and its unique venues.
Horenstein describes how a Jewish kid growing up in New Bedford developed an interest in country music in the exhibition notes. He started hanging out in the “kid friendly” Melody Shop, New Bedford’s only music store, at age eight. He met folk singer Paul Clayton there, who recommended he buy “Johnny Cash Sings Hank Williams.” It was Horenstein’s first LP and he still plays that record.
When his parents moved to Boston during his high school years, he essentially took up residence at Cambridge’s legendary Club 47, hearing many different performers playing many different genres. His interest in photography blossomed as a junior history major at University of Chicago. Heeding the advice of his teacher, Harry Callahan, to “photograph people and places to which I was naturally drawn,” he took pictures in Nashville and Texas, in smoke-filled bars and hillbilly ranches during the 1970’s.
All along, he knew he wanted to preserve on film what he saw as a disappearing world of lesser honky tonks and country music parks. In 2012, he published “Honky Tonk: Portraits of Country Music,” a sumptuous collection of 120 black and white photographs he shot from 1972 through 2011, many of which are part of the Manninen exhibit.
What is most surprising is how well represented New England, and especially Massachusetts, is. There is Don Stover, a banjo picker from West Virginia, who came to Boston in 1952 and settled in Billerica. A 26-year-old Dolly Parton, looking like the poster child for the song, “Honky Tonk Angel,” posed in front of Symphony Hall before her debut concert there in 1972. Doc Watson, the North Carolina blind guitarist and singer who performed until his death at 89 in 2012, was memorialized at Cambridge’s Performance Center in 1974, as was the hard-living Waylon Jennings in 1976.
The Hillbilly Ranch in Boston was a favorite of Horenstein’s, and he photographed Tex Ritter there, as well as the regular patrons. Jerry Lee Lewis, at an old Baldwin piano, nonchalantly lights up a cigar at Boston’s Ramada Inn in 1976.
“A lot of people assume that country music is a Southern thing,” Horenstein wrote. “It isn’t. It’s everywhere.”
“Honky Tonk” will be at Endicott College Manninen Center for the Arts through October 17. For directions and hours, go to endicott.edu/centerforthearts.
Pictured at top: Jerry Lee Lewis, Ramada Inn, Boston, 1976