Annenberg Space for Photography show frames country music in new light

As house photographer at the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville for more then three decades, Les Leverett was on hand for a lot of historic moments that unfolded at the country music palace.

But even he considers himself fortunate for the circumstances that came together in 1962, when, with camera in hand, he was in the office of Opry manager Ott Devine just as Devine told up-and-coming singer-songwriter Loretta Lynn she’d been invited to join the Opry as a cast member.

Leverett snapped the shot as Lynn threw up her hands and burst into a mile-wide smile, one of more than 100 images in the Annenberg Space for Photography’s new show documenting the relationship between country music and photography. “Country: Portraits of an American Sound,” opens May 31 and is slated to run through Sept. 28 at the Century City institution.


The exhibit boasts a who’s who of country artists spanning more than six decades, from early figures such as Mother Maybelle Carter, Roy Acuff and Minnie Pearl through ‘50s and ‘60s icons including Johnny Cash, Dolly Parton and Merle Haggard to ‘70s country outlaws Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings, country-rock maverick Gram Parsons and contemporary stars Keith Urban, Miranda Lambert and newcomer Kacey Musgraves.

Many other images shot by Leverett over the course of his relationship with the Opry from 1960 to 1992 are in the show, along with those of one of Leverett’s Nashville predecessors, Walden S. Fabry, and other photographers.

The show is co-curated by a couple of staff members at Nashville’s Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum — Michael McCall and Tim Davis — in collaboration with Shannon Perich from the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History.

“We wanted to look at how photography helped shape the image of country music, how artists used photography to separate themselves, and also to establish themes in showing that they are country music,” said Country Hall of Fame writer-editor McCall.

Case in point: Fabry’s elegant portrait of Charley Pride, an African American musician in what historically has been a predominantly white, Southern musical genre.

“RCA purposely hired him to get a glamour shot to create the most sophisticated way that they could present him” to country fans, McCall said.

Along with hundreds of photos, the show offers several original documentaries on facets of country music and photography, plus a string of live performances by various musicians during the four-month run.

Leverett, 87, will travel from his home outside Nashville to a special preview event at the museum, along with a number of the other represented photographers.

Ask him about that energetic shot of Lynn he took half a century ago and you’ll hear pride as well as unflinching honesty: “It would have been better if I’d had a wide-angle lens. I had the Lenhoff, which was the Cadillac of 4x5 cameras, but darn it, I was so close I cut her hand off,” he said. “It all happened so fast. But, boy, that was a fun time.

“It wasn’t me — other people provided those opportunities for me,” Leverett added. “I was just lucky enough to be there.”