The exhibit “Country: Portraits of an American Sound” opens at the Annenberg Space for Photography in Los Angeles on Saturday and will be on display until Sept. 28, 2014.
by: James Estrin
With a glowing, handsome face, dramatic eyes and stylish hair, the subject of a Walden Fabry studio portrait looks like a matinee idol. That was in 1964, when Willie Nelson was trying to be a Nashville star.
Willie doesn’t quite seem comfortable in the role.
While he tried to fit the Nashville mold as a singer in the ’50s and ’60s, finding middling success, he eventually grew his hair long, moved to Austin, Tex., and became famous on his own terms by making the music he wanted to make.
This image is now the centerpiece of “Country: Portraits of an American Sound,” a new exhibition at the Annenberg Space for Photography in Los Angeles that explores how the images were used to market country music.
This photo also resonated with me because in 2002 I was given one of my favorite assignments in my 35-year career: to take a five-and-a-half-hour ride with Willie on his customized tour bus from Austin to Fort Worth, where he was performing.
He was friendly and courteous, but it was evident he was not looking forward to being photographed for the next five hours straight. He asked if I liked chess, and although I knew I was not all that skilled at the game, we moved to a table and started playing.
It quickly became clear that he was much better than I, but somehow I managed to win two of the first six matches. I took a handful of photos, mostly from table level, while I tried to build a relationship so I could photograph him in the bus’s bedroom and backstage later.
Often when you photograph famous people it can be disappointing. Sometimes the ones you admire you end up not liking as people, and the ones you expect not to like turn out to be nice.
But he was exactly who I had expected: a fully realized Willie Nelson, authentically himself. He was funny and smoked pot throughout the chess matches. I don’t, but even if I did smoke, I certainly could not have done it while on assignment for The Times. Each time he offered I said I couldn’t because of work.
Willie Nelson on his tour bus from Austin, Tex., to Fort Worth, where he was performing at Gilley’s. Nov. 16, 2002.Credit James Estrin/The New York Times
By the eighth match we both noticed that my playing was deteriorating rapidly in direct relationship to the amount of smoke hanging the air. I was getting a contact high. He opened the window and I continued to play, and lose. I took a few more frames from table level without looking through the viewfinder.
Whenever I tell the story, which is often, people are invariably pleased that the real Willie Nelson seemed to be like, well, Willie Nelson.
In the show at the Annenberg there are images of him in later years, after he became known as a good-hearted, pot-smoking grandfatherly eccentric. His changing image is a good starting point for the exploration of how images helped shape the public identity of country music performers and of the genre itself.
It can be difficult to define country music. Like Mr. Nelson, the genre has changed. Country started as “old-timey” music, then “hillbilly” music, and has more recently become, at times, indistinguishable from bland Top 40 pop.
Its roots goes back 300 years to the American folk music of the southern Appalachian Mountains that was shaped by the Irish and Scottish string instrument music of early settlers. What is known today as country music was influenced by the Western music that celebrated the life of cowboys and also by the blues as well as bluegrass, rockabilly, Western swing and honky-tonk music.
But it was with the rise of radio and the recording industry in the first half of the 20th century that the acoustic music that originated on the front porches and in living rooms of the South became viable commercially. It was only after World War II that the music became big business and the term “country music” became widely used.
Because country music is not really one single thing, curating a photography exhibition on the genre raises some difficulties, said Shannon Perich, who curated the show with Tim Davis and Michael McCall of the Country Music Hall of Fame.
“Country music is hard to define sometimes,” she said. “But like pornography, you know it when you hear it.”