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Picture Perfect: Behind the Lens of Iconic Country Music Photos

Photographers featured in a special Los Angeles exhibit talk about their star subjects, from Dolly Parton to Keith Urban

Hank Thompson & Band

Elmer Williams

With some posed and others serendipitously candid, the 110 photos at the Annenberg Space for Photography's new exhibit, Country: Portraits of an American Sound, help tell the story of country music's past 80 years. The exhibition, which is free and open to the public, runs through September 28th at the Los Angeles gallery and features artists from Hank Thompson and June Carter Cash to Keith Urban and Kacey Musgraves. The photos themselves range from album cover shoots to historic moments caught on camera, including the very moment Loretta Lynn found out she was being invited to join the Grand Ole Opry. Here, Rolling Stone Country previews several rare photos from the exhibit, accompanied by exclusive commentary from each photographer about their subjects.

Dolly Parton

Henry Horenstein

Dolly Parton at Symphony Hall in Boston, 1972

"Dolly was just starting out, really. She was the girl singer in the Porter Wagoner band, a big country act back in the day, and I photographed her backstage between appearances. Since she was just a featured act, she only had a few songs so we had a lot of time with her. 'We' was me, Ken Irwin and Marian Leighton — friends of mine who had just started Rounder Records, which was to become an important indie label featuring what we now call Americana music.

"[Dolly] was sweet, self-depricating, charming, and gorgeous. I had a terrible crush on her and nodded at anything she said. One thing I recall she said was the reason she looked the way she did was that people didn't come out to see her looking like them. She was talking about rural people at a music show, but I think this is good advice for any creative person." — Henry Horenstein

Waylon Jennings

Raeanne Rubenstein

Waylon Jennings in New York, 1973

"This was taken on the second floor of the famed nightclub known as Max's Kansas City. Anybody who was anybody in New York hung out at Max's, and famous musicians from all over the world would drop in, including Waylon. He was the headliner at Max's that night, and this photo was taken in the afternoon, during sound check. And as you can tell, Waylon seemed quite interested in getting himself into a bit of trouble with a little New York City girl with a camera. I might add that I'm 100 percent certain that he succeeded in getting into trouble that night, but I'm happy to report that it wasn't with me…. Waylon had many different personalities. And charm and playfulness was one of them." — Raeanne Rubenstein

Johnny Cash appears on the Grand Ole Opry, 1971

Les Leverett

Johnny Cash at Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium, 1971

"He often slung his guitar around his back, but you hardly ever saw him bending over in laughter! After all these years, I have no idea what he was laughing about, but he was prone to laugh a lot.

"That was back when the Grand Ole Opry was at the Ryman, and I had to shoot through a crack in those black curtains. It's one of two of my favorite pictures I ever made of Johnny Cash. I love shots when they're not even aware we're making them." — Les Leverett

Loretta Lynn

Les Leverett

Loretta Lynn Responds to Opry Invitation, 1962

"I needed a 35 millimeter camera, and my boss would not buy one at that time. All I had to work with was a secondhand Linhoff . Well, Ott Devine called and wanted me up there to make a picture; he told me what he was doing. That thrilled me to death, because I'd known Loretta for years. So I went up there with that Linhoff to his office, which was really narrow. I got my camera focused and when he asked her, 'Would you like to be the newest member of the Grand Ole Opry?,' that's how she reacted. She jumped up, threw her arms up… And I had to catch that but also get Ott in the picture, because he's the boss! If I'd had a wider angle lens, I could've gotten both of her hands. But I guess I didn't need it, because the expression on her face was worth the whole thing." — Les Leverett

The Band Perry

David McClister

The Band Perry in New Orleans, 2012

"I also direct music videos, and have worked with the Band Perry on several of their videos ('If I Die Young,' 'Postcard From Paris,' 'Chainsaw'). This was taken during the filming of the video for 'Postcard From Paris,' which was inspired by the films of the French New Wave (especially those by Godard and Truffaut).

"We had just completed some driving scenes with the band for the video, and though we were pressed for time to get to our next set-up five minutes away, the light was perfect, as was the scene. I had the car reset where I wanted it and asked the band if they would step in for a few shots. I think I popped off one or two rolls of medium-format, black-and-white, while the rest of my crew went on to the next location. We were having so much fun, we didn't realize that everyone had left us behind." — David McClister

Nudie Cohn Gram Parsons

Raeanne Rubenstein

Nudie Cohn and Gram Parsons at Nudie’s Rodeo Tailors Shop in Los Angeles, 1968

"It was clear at this photo shoot that Gram was very impressed by Nudie, and that he respected Nudie for being the genius that he was with a needle. But the feelings in that room ran much deeper than that. I could actually feel the love that Gram had for Nudie — it was there like a presence in every move, every smile, every touch that Gram bestowed on Nudie, and Nudie bestowed on Gram. There was a kind of father-son or mentor-student relationship happening at the same time, and I remember feeling at the time how honored I was to be in the presence of not only such great and famous artists, and how generous they were to offer me the gift of these images so freely." — Raeanne Rubenstein

Tammy Wynette

Raeanne Rubenstein

Tammy Wynette at Home in Nashville, 1974

"Emotion in photographs is expressed by so much more than just the eyes. A person's complete story is actually expressed by everything about them. So how Tammy sat, whether she smiled or not, whether she was stiff or looked comfortable, crossed her legs or not, leaned forward or back, how she styled her hair or painted her nails, seemed happy or not, contented or impatient, interested or bored — every one of these factors and so many more small indications of a subject's true being and state of mind, tells the entire story in a great photographic portrait. Eyes are just a part of the whole equation.

"She was cooperative and extremely gracious. She agreed to do whatever I asked, even if it was something silly like George [Jones] pushing her up in the air in a too-small child's swing. I think she was very happy to be at home." — Raeanne Rubenstein

June Carter

Les Leverett

Earl Scruggs and June Carter on the Set of the ‘Flatt & Scruggs Show,’ 1961

"Earl was the best banjo player in the world, but he had that beautiful little guitar he could play just as well. For that particular song, he was playing guitar while June sang on his show, the Flat & Scruggs Martha White TV show, which I would photograph at the old WSM television station. It was a fabulous show that us old bluegrass hillbillies loved. You can tell June is really having fun. And the unusual thing about this picture is that Earl Scruggs has a great, big grin on his face, and he hardly ever smiled! He was very serious about that banjo picking and usually just stood there and played.

"June was a funny lady, and absolutely beautiful. I saw her in many situations other than on stage, and she was always sweet… and always laughing. The only thing wrong with her was she'd always call me 'Les Levert,' instead of Les Leverett. She never got my name right, but I just loved her." — Les Leverett

Keith urban

David McClister

Keith Urban in Nashville, 2012

"Oftentimes, the choice to shoot in color or black-and-white is an instinctive one. Though I had color film with me that day, I chose to shoot only in black-and-white. It just felt right for the location, for the light through the window, for the scene itself — and for a timeless artist like Keith.

"This shot was taken during the filming of the music video for Don Williams' song, 'Imagine That' (which I also shot and directed). Keith had been a lifelong fan of Don's, so being on Don's record and then being in the video with him was just a great thrill and an honor for him. The chemistry between the two of them was incredible. My job was easy: stand back and capture the chemistry and magic they were making. Quite a thrill for all of us that day… two icons of country music from two different eras coming together to play music." — David McClister

Rambling Jack Elliot

Henry Diltz

Rambling Jack Elliot, California, 1967

"I took this picture of Ramblin' Jack Elliot on the day I took the photo for his album cover, Young Brigham. Young Brigham was his horse that was stabled in Chatsworth. The album photo was of him on his horse throwing a lasso around me with the camera, as if the viewer were being lassoed. Jack was a really good friend of mine, so naturally we had a good time, hence his good mood at the fence a little later in the afternoon." — Henry Diltz

Miranda Lambert

David McClister

Miranda Lambert, Ashland City, Tennessee, 2011

"This particular shot was inspired by a classic photo of John Wayne that I had seen only a few days before the shoot. (Serendipity.) It just felt classic, tough, bold — words I would use to describe Miranda's music as well.

"This was her first shoot for Rolling Stone and though we had a limited amount of time, we knocked out three setups and never once felt rushed." — David McClister

Loretta Lynn and Sissy Spacek

Les Leverett

Loretta Lynn and Sissy Spacek at the Grand Ole Opry, 1979

"Sissy came to be on the Opry, because she was playing Loretta in the movie about her life [Coal Miner's Daughter]. I got them together just off the stage, where the visitors would stand. I think they were laughing about something I said here. I was cutting up to get them to smile. Sissy spent a lot of time in Nashville to learn more about Loretta's life for that part." — Les Leverett

Ramona & Grandpa Jones

Henry Horenstein

Ramona & Grandpa Jones at the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville, 1974

"I don't really photograph formally; most of my photos are candid or semi-candid. Grandpa and Ramona posed for me like they posed for thousands of fans over the years. And that was that. I doubt we even exchanged five words. This one was shot at the Ryman Auditorium, when the Grand Ole Opry was based there. The Joneses went on to a very long career in country music, but Grandpa actually started out on a radio station in Boston, where I am from. This was not unusual, as a lot of southern and midwestern performers moved to the big northern cities where there were jobs for country music fans and thus work for musicians. Most people knew Grandpa and Ramona from their work as cast members of the popular TV show, Hee Haw." — Henry Horenstein

Willie Nelson

Raeanne Rubenstein

Willie Nelson in Austin, Texas, 1974

"This was shot at Willie's Picnic near Austin, Texas. Willie was as kind and generous and gentle as any man could possibly be in the presence of an admiring child.

"Willie Nelson is a superstar, known around the world for his great songs, awesome picking, unique looks and outlaw ways. Take it from me, Willie is not unassuming." — Raeanne Rubenstein

Doc Watson

Michael Wilson

Doc Watson in North Carolina, 1999

"This picture was made in a cabin on the grounds where MerleFest is held in Wilkesboro, North Carolina. It was made very simply with the daylight coming in from the open door of the cabin.

"Doc was generous and gracious. He was indeed playing guitar — and singing! There was a moment where he began playing Merle Haggard's 'If We Make It Through December,' and it was amazing. In Doc's hands, the song sounded like it had been around for hundreds of years… like a ballad that had traveled overseas with the folks who settled in Appalachia from the British Isles. I'm grateful to have been there." — Michael Wilson