They're Keeping It Real Country

Courtesy: Michael O'Sullivan, Washington Post Staff Writer - Friday, March 31, 2006

           Country music has changed -- and I'm not just talking about Dolly Parton's plastic surgery. All the same, the singer's gradual Michael Jacksonification is an apt metaphor for the transformation of the genre from its roots (as any comparison of Parton's physical appearance on this month's Academy Awards telecast to a 1972 portrait taken by photographer Henry Horenstein will attest). A 1972 photograph of Dolly Parton, by Henry Horenstein, part of an exhibit of his country music photos at the National Museum of American History. (By Henry Horenstein)
           Part of the National Museum of American History's "Honky-Tonk: Country Music Photographs by Henry Horenstein, 1972-1981," the black-and-white image of a doe-eyed and still un-nip-and-tucked Parton -- shot for the newspaper Boston After Dark by the young, Massachusetts-based music fan -- is but one frame from a decade's worth of photographs documenting an inexorable shift in country music. It was a shift away from the roadhouses, dive bars, hole-in-the-wall clubs and outdoor parks that were once its bread and butter to what the show calls the arena-based "mega-concerts" of today.
           With that shift toward younger, flashier performers and larger venues came a distance between the music (meaning stars like the "king" and "queen" of country Roy Acuff and Kitty Wells) and its fans. It's an all too common, and all too commonly taken for granted, distance that makes a shot like Horenstein's 1973 picture of a grinning, cowboy-hatted Ernest Tubb being affectionately mobbed -- and manhandled -- by fans at the Lone Star Ranch of Reeds Ferry, N.H., so arresting. Arresting because such connection with celebrity entertainers is today so unheard of.
           It's more than the loss of access by fans to their favorite performers that makes "Honky Tonk" such a nostalgic, bittersweet experience, even for those who don't particularly appreciate the music. There's another kind of loss that's documented here as well, and it's one that has taken place in other musical genres as well, as rock, hip-hop and other once-outsider art forms have been co-opted by big business.
           Call it a loss of authenticity, and compare it with the talk one hears these days of "keeping it real" in the world of rap. In the case of country music, you can see it in the so-called hat acts of today who affect the headwear of their rustic predecessors. This, of course, is nothing new, as the Horenstein show points out. The exhibition includes a white, faintly sweat-stained cowboy hat worn by Dudley Connell (founder of the Johnson Mountain Boys and son of that Wild West frontier town, Rockville, Md.). It also includes a hat worn by Minnie Pearl, a country-fried comedienne well known to fans of the old "Hee Haw" TV variety show. Even in her heyday, that item was as much shtick as Gretchen Wilson's artfully faded and ripped jeans.
           That dynamic of authenticity is also present, if you read between the lines, in a second, thematically related show. Now on view at the Kennedy Center in conjunction with the festival "Country: A Celebration of America's Music," The "Hatch Show Print Exhibit" puts on view an array of colorful, eye-catching graphic material produced by Hatch Show Print, the Nashville shop founded in 1879 and known for its iconic, often hand-carved woodblock posters advertising country music concerts.
           You can see it in the Hatch shop's poster hawking "Bruce Springsteen Live in New York City."
           "New York City?" you might find yourself wondering in disbelief, just like those TV cowpokes used to do in the old salsa commercials. What does New York City -- or Springsteen, for that matter -- have to do with country?
           The answer, of course, has less to do with the Boss's country roots (after all, the New Jersey-born singer-songwriter did put out an album called "Nebraska") than with his vaunted authenticity. By choosing to promote his music through Hatch's old-timey letterpress graphics, whose homespun flaws and minor imperfections were once as liable to be found on an ad for oil or shoes as for a musician, he's signaling something to his fans about his real -ness. Not that it's wholly an affectation, but it's a conscious decision that deliberately harks back to a simpler, lower-tech time.
           What is accomplished by the use of Hatch Show Print by Springsteen to promote his act, or by the Legendary Shack Shakers to hype their genre-shifting brand of blues, punk, rock and country, is an attempt to erase the distance that has grown between music fans and the objects of their affection. It tells them (or rather us, hoi polloi) that while superstars may seem to inhabit the stratosphere, they're really down to earth.
           Indeed, it's what both the "Hatch" and "Honky Tonk" shows themselves attempt to do. And for a little while anyway, it's fun to remember that it once was true, and to pretend that it still might be.
           HONKY TONK: COUNTRY MUSIC PHOTOGRAPHS BY HENRY HORENSTEIN, 1972-1981 Through Sept. 5 at the National Museum of American History, 14th Street and Constitution Avenue NW (Metro: Smithsonian, Federal Triangle). 202-633-1000. (TDD: 202-357-1729). Open daily 10 to 5:30. Free.
           HATCH SHOW PRINT EXHIBIT Through April 16 in the Terrace Gallery of the Kennedy Center, 2700 F St. NW (Metro: Foggy Bottom-GWU, with free shuttles). Open daily 10 to closing. Free.

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