Three Chords And The Truth

A lot of people assume that country music is a Southern thing. It isn't. It's everywhere. It always has been—even in New Bedford, Massachusetts, where I grew up, about sixty miles south of Boston. By the time I was eight years old, I was spending time at New Bedford's only music store, the Melody Shop. The owner was kid-friendly and an older guy, a folksinger named Paul Clayton, spent a lot of time there as well. It turns out there wasn't much interest in his specialty—whaling songs—except in New Bedford, which in the nineteenth century was the world's greatest whaling port. Clayton helped rearrange an old folksong called "Gotta Travel On," which became a hit for country singer Billy Grammer in 1959. Bob Dylan covered it years later in his Self Portrait album. Before Clayton had to travel on (and out) of our hometown, he recommended I buy Johnny Cash Sings Hank Williams on Sun Records. It was my very first LP purchase and I still play that record.

Cash sang a style of music I was already familiar with, but no one told ever told me it was called country. Mainstream radio stations in the mid-to-late 1950s commonly programmed country music. Only they didn't usually call it that. Country was equated with "hillbilly" and few stations wanted that association. The audience for country music was thought to be too limited and too poor. Better to play Pat Boone, Patti Page, Johnny Mathis, and the new rock-and-roll, which was essentially a hybrid of country music and rhythm-and-blues. The demographics were better, as the audience was younger and had more disposable income. This allowed stations to charge higher rates for advertisements.

Take Elvis Presley, for example. Elvis grew up poor in Tupelo, Mississippi. He played gospel and country music and eventually became fond of the blues. He melded all these styles and made music history—and a ton of money. After that, record companies went looking for white country singers with a little rhythm. While finding another Elvis was too much to hope for, there were quite a few good old boys, and even a couple of good old girls, who rode the radio airwaves in the late 1950s and early 1960s. And they were my favorites: Johnny Cash (of course), Marty Robbins, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Horton, Wanda Jackson, Stonewall Jackson, Skeeter Davis, Patsy Cline, and Jimmie Rodgers (the other one, not the legendary "Singing Brakeman" of the 1920s and '30s).

The late songwriter Harlan Howard was once asked what made a great county song. "Three chords and the truth," he answered. He would know. Howard wrote Patsy Cline's great hit "I Fall to Pieces," as well as "Busted" (Ray Charles), "Heartaches by the Number" (Ray Price), "Tiger by the Tail" (Buck Owens, who was also co-writer), and so many other country classics. What he meant by "three chords" was simplicity. I understood that from listening to folk music, much of which could be faked if you knew your basic D, G, and A7 guitar chords.

When I was in high school, my parents moved us from New Bedford to Boston, and I spent many more nights at Cambridge's legendary Club 47 than at my new home. Though folk songs and country music aren't exactly the same, there are deep connections. In a single week at the 47, you might see bluegrass bands like Jim and Jessie and the Virginia Boys and bluesmen like Muddy Waters. Many times at the 47 I saw Jim Kweskin and the Jug Band with Bill Keith, who later revolutionized bluegrass banjo while working with the Bill Monroe and the Bluegrass Boys. Keith's early music partner was Jim Rooney who managed the Club 47 and later moved to Nashville to work with the legendary producer and songwriter Cowboy Jack Clement. I first heard Johnny Cash's plaintive "I Still Miss Someone" and Lefty Frizzell's classic "Long Black Veil" sung by Joan Baez.

I suspect by truth Howard meant directness and honesty. But to me, it had another, more straighforward meaning—much of the folk and country tradition is narrative, describing stories and events often historical or legendary in nature. Certainly Woody Guthrie's music, as in a song like "Pretty Boy Floyd," falls into this category, as does so much of old-time country music: Marty Robbins's "Big Iron," Johnny Cash's "Folsom Prison Blues," and Johnny Horton's "The Battle of New Orleans" come to mind. And even today one of the most eloquent reminiscences of the events of September 11, 2001 is Alan Jackson's "Where Were You (When the World Stopped Turning?)."

For college, I went to the University of Chicago to study history. One unexpected benefit was the University of Chicago Folk Festival, headed at the time by Bruce Kaplan who later went on to work with Rounder Records and then started Flying Fish Records. These labels were critical players in the preservation of traditional country and blues music—what's called "Americana" today. At Chicago, I also met fellow history student Bill Nowlin, one of Rounder's founders, and through Bill I met the other original Rounders—Marian Leighton and Ken Irwin.

The New Lost City Ramblers always headlined the University of Chicago Folk Festival. They also helped book the acts. There I heard the legendary banjo picker Don Reno, the Appalachian folksinger Roscoe Holcomb, Cajun virtuosos Nathan Abshire and Dewey Balfa, and the amazing Doc Watson. Later on, I was able to photograph many of the artists I first saw and heard in Chicago and some of them appear in this book.

The New Lost City Ramblers consisted of John Cohen, Mike Seeger, and at various times Tom Paley and Tracy Schwarz. Highly influential, the Ramblers helped preserve traditional music by taking it to a younger and newer audience. Though under-appreciated, they paved the way for folk and country-based singers from Bob Dylan to Alison Kraus. Jerry Garcia, a big fan, called the Ramblers Uncle John's Band and wrote one of the Grateful Dead's best-known songs about them.

I later discovered that John Cohen was as accomplished a photographer as he was a musician. His film That High Lonesome Sound (about Roscoe Holcomb) and his book There is No Eye are invaluable contributions to documentary film, photography, and traditional country music.

In Chicago I had many wonderful history teachers. One of them, Jesse Lemisch, introduced me to the work of the noted British historian E.P. Thompson, whom I later studied with at the University of Warwick. I learned many things from these teachers that I tried to apply to my photography later on. One was that there is no pure "truth"; what you read depends very much on the point of view of the teller—or the historian. I also learned that the points of view of "successful" people and cultures were the ones most often remembered. They were in the best position to write down and record what they accomplished, what they felt, and what they believed in. So my teachers taught me that the most important job of the historian was to record the stories of people and cultures that were not "successful," because they would eventually disappear and the history left behind would be an unfinished one—and therefore untruthful.

I translated these lessons to what I knew about music. I concluded that if I were interested in learning about long-distance truckers, for example, I should listen to Dave Dudley sing "Six Days on the Road" and not a speech by the Secretary of Transportation. Dave would tell me things that a stuffy secretary could never hope to know.

In my junior year in college I became interested in photography. For one thing, it got me out of the library stacks and got me more involved with people than with books. And honestly, photography was cooler than history, and it got me a lot more dates. But I always kept what I learned as a historian in mind as I tried to figure out how to make the uncertain transition from academic to artist. Photographer Danny Lyons, at that time a recent history graduate of the University of Chicago, had just made that transition, publishing his landmark photoessay The Bikeriders, about the Outlaw motorcycle club in Chicago. I saw Lyon as a historian with a camera—and that's what I wanted to be.

Like any serious photographer, I became familiar with the work of Robert Frank, Lyons's predecessor, who produced one of the most important photography books ever, The Americans. (I was interested when I heard Frank lecture years later to hear him say that his favorite musician was country music legend Hank Williams.) And of course before Frank there were other terrific examples of fine (artistic) documentary photographers who collaborated with great writers: Walker Evans's Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (with text by James Agee), Dorothea Lange's An American Exodus (with Paul Taylor), and Margaret Bourke-White's You Have Seen Their Faces (with Erskine Caldwell).  So I knew that I wanted to take pictures, make books, and record history. But where to start?

My photography teacher Harry Callahan answered my questions simply by telling me to photograph people and places to which I was naturally drawn. In his way, Callahan was saying the same thing as Harlan Howard: Tell your truth and be yourself. How could I have missed that? And so I started photographing even more around music shows and concerts. Harry told me that even if I got lousy pictures, I would probably have a good time. Good advice, Harry.

I finished my art training in 1973 and set out to apply what I had learned. In those days there was very little hope of making a living as a documentary photographer. So I took a variety of jobs, not all in photography, and took pictures on the side. I did some work for my friends at Rounder Records—usually publicity and album covers, some of which are reproduced in this book, I also photographed a little for magazines such as Country Music, Bluegrass Unlimited, and Muleskinner News, where I served as the photography editor—an unpaid position. But mostly I photographed for myself.

I drove to Nashville a few times with friends and stopped on the way to photograph Ralph Stanley and Curly Ray Cline. In Nashville, I took photographs at the Ryman Auditorium during the Grand Ole Opry shows and spent many hazy nights at the legendary Tootsies Orchid Lounge. And when possible, I went to the homes of performers who were gracious enough to invite me in, such as Wilma Lee and Stoney Cooper, Mack Magaha, and Del Reeves.

Almost every summer Sunday for years I went to the Lone Star Ranch, a country music park in southern New Hampshire or the Indian Ranch in Webster, Massachusetts. There I saw and photographed legendary acts like Ernest Tubb, George Morgan, and Mother Maybelle Carter. And I went to bluegrass festivals. In Pennsylvania I photographed a young Del McCoury and the older Blue Sky Boys, and in Maryland I shot the forgotten legend Charlie Monroe. Then there were the honky tonks—slightly disreputable bars with live music. In Boston, we had the Hillbilly Ranch and I photographed Tex Ritter there, as well as regular patrons. One regular was Hillbilly Tex who was neither a hillbilly nor from Texas. I also photographed in bars that played country-related music wherever I could—in particular, quite a few in Louisiana since I was dating a girl from New Orleans.

In recent years, I have photographed musicians and their fans in smoke-filled bars in Bakersfield, California, Fais Do-Dos in Cajun Louisiana, gilded theaters in Branson, Missouri, Fan Fair in Nashville, Tennessee, and dance halls in Austin, Texas. I've included some of these pictures here because they reflect a continuation of the shrinking world I first covered in the 1970s.

All along, in my historian's mind, I always saw this as a disappearing world that I wanted to preserve on film. As I look back, many years later, it's sad to see that I wasn't far off. Many of the people and the places pictured here are long gone, though some have adjusted and survived. There are some bright spots. Bluegrass festivals are thriving and the Ryman Auditorium, former home of the Grand Ol' Opry, has been restored. Tootsies Orchid Lounge is now branded as "The World's Greatest Honky Tonk." There's even a Tootsie's at the Nashville Airport. But the Hillbilly Ranch and so many lesser honky tonks have faded away. There are hardly any country music parks left. And we've lost so many great musicians, naturally, and along with them went a way of life. In the years to come, I expect that everyone will remember mega stars like Elvis Presley and Johnny Cash, but I wonder: Will they remember Kitty Wells, Ernest Tubb, or, for that matter, Hillbilly Tex? These pictures were made in hopes that they will.