New Photography Documentary Zooms In on Country Music History

'Country: Portraits of an American Sound' premieres at 2015 Nashville Film Festival

Manuel, Peter Cooper, Holly Williams and Maria Salinas Del Carmen attend the 'Country: Portraits of an American Sound' premiere in Nashville. Credit: Rick Diamond/Getty Images for Annenberg Foundation

Since 1969, when it was first organized (as Sinking Creek Film Festival), the Nashville Film Festival has presented thousands of award-winning shorts, features and documentaries, as well as panel discussions and other special programs, many of which capitalize on Nashville's status as Music City. While the 2015 Nashville Film Festival, which closes this weekend after another record-breaking year, presents independent films in all genres, this year's slate of music-centric films was particular stellar. Among the films screened were Revival: The Sam Bush Story,  about the legendary bluegrass multi-instrumentalist; Made in Japan, chronicling the life and career of Tomi Fujiyama, the world's first female Japanese country music star, and Orion: The Man Who Would Be King, the twisted (but true) tale of Jimmy Ellis, a masked entertainer whose very existence helped perpetuate the "Elvis Is Alive" phenomenon.

One of the true highlights of this year's festival was the world premiere of Country: Portraits of an American Sound, a lovingly rendered and impressively comprehensive documentary that tells the 90-year history of recorded country music through the lenses of some of the world's best-known photographers. Expounding on a short film created to accompany the photographic exhibit for the Annenberg Space for Photography in Los Angeles, Country: Portraits of an American Sound was produced and directed by Steven Kochones for Arclight Productions and features the iconic photographs of Henry Diltz, Henry Horenstein, Les Leverett, David McClister, Raeanne Rubenstein, Leigh Weiner and Michael Wilson, among others, with commentary from artists including Bill Anderson, the Band Perry, Rosanne Cash, Terri Clark, Brenda Lee, Ronnie Milsap, Lorrie Morgan, Charley Pride, Kenny Rogers, Connie Smith, Marty Stuart and Holly Williams. In addition, the film spotlights such influential figures as fashion designer to the stars Manuel, and observations from noted country music historians Peter Cooper, Don Cusic and Michael McCall.

The 90-minute film not only provides viewers with an extraordinarily detailed country music history lesson, exploring the genres origins and the ever-evolving musical styles, but also focuses, through amazing still images – many in glorious black-and-white – on the ways fashion trends have defined artists and vice versa, from Porter Wagoner's spectacular rhinestone-studded Nudie suits to Johnny Cash's signature all-black garb. (Reba McEntire's infamous red dress even makes an appearance.) 

Beyond the fashions, Country: Portraits of an American Sound also revisits the challenges faced by African-American artists such as the Opry's first black performer, harmonica legend DeFord Bailey, and future country superstar Charley Pride, with indelible images of the segregated South providing historical context along the way. 

An invitation-only reception was held at Nashville restaurant Table 3 before the world premiere screening of the film Wednesday night, with the filmmakers and many of the film's participants in attendance, including photographers Leverett, Horenstein and Rubinstein, artists Clark and Williams, as well as singer Danielle Peck, newcomer Dean Alexander and Country Music Hall of Fame member Bobby Braddock.