News Column

'Portraits' puts grand ole artistry on display

June 16, 2014

By Edna Gundersen, @EdnaGundersen, USA TODAY

In early 1982, Japanese dignitaries sat in the front row at the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville when Loretta Lynn sauntered to the edge of the stage. Photographer Les Leverett winced.

"I was in front on my poor old knees taking pictures," he says. "I just shrunk up and thought, 'Please don't be Loretta tonight.' She looked at the Japanese party and told the crowd and the radio audience: 'We got the Japanese ambassador here tonight. They're the ones that bummed Pearl Harbor!'"

Leverett, 87, spent 32 years photographing Opry performers, capturing country's biggest pioneers and personalities at the genre's nerve center. His shots are among more than 110 inCountry: Portraits of an American Sound, a new photo exhibit at the Annenberg Space for Photography in Los Angeles.

The show, spotlighting such icons as Johnny Cash, Hank Williams, Dolly Parton and Merle Haggard, was curated by Shannon Perich of the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History and Tim Davis and Michael McCall of the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum. It's likely to travel to other cities when the Annenberg run, free to the public, ends Sept. 28.

access to country giants

Photos spanning six decades were taken by Leverett; Boston-based documentary photographer Henry Horenstein; entertainment photographers Henry Diltz, Raeanne Rubenstein, Ethan Russell, David McClister and Michael Wilson; and the late Elmer Williams, Walden S. Fabry and Leigh Wiener.

Leverett had access to scores of country giants as the photographer at Nashville'sNational Life insurance company, which founded WSM radio, the Grand Ole Opry and the city's first TV station. Leverett started at $90 a week doing Opry star portraits.

The company "owned you body and soul, but I defied them," Leverett says. "I'd make comments to the singers like, 'Boy, that would make a good album cover.' After five years, Porter Wagoner called me," and that started his sideline in album photography.

Leverett photographed Patsy Cline, George Jones, Minnie Pearl, Conway Twitty and scores of Nashville big shots, including Lynn at the moment in 1962 when Opry manager Ott Devine invited her to join the cast.

from old guard to new

David McClister was directing music videos when he picked up a still camera, at his wife's urging, in 2000. "I fell in love with the medium immediately," he says. "I love the freedom and spontaneity."

While Leverett explored country's old guard, McClister has focused on young guns, from Keith Urban to The Band Perry.

He also has shot such legends as Cash and Nelson, but he's gunning for game beyond one genre. "I'd like to work with people who've had a huge influence on me: Neil Young, Bruce Springsteen, Tom Petty."

McClister, 46, cornered Kacey Musgraves backstage at 2013's Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival. "She doesn't do many photo shoots," he says. "We clicked pretty quickly, and that made it fun.

"My goal is to capture the essence of that artist and a side people haven't seen before. It's usually a matter of quickly trying to develop that rapport and trust so artists let down their guard. But every shoot is different, and that's what I love about photography."

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Source: USA Today

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