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Picture This: Rarely seen portraits of country music stars on display in LA

by Michelle Lanz with Steve Proffitt | Take Two®

Gram Parsons (standing), adopting the rhinestone look of his country music heroes, in a personalized suit designed by Nashville’s favorite tailor, Nudie Cohn (seated), at Nudie’s Rodeo Tailors shop, Los Angeles, 1968. Raeanne Rubenstein

Country music legends Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson and Emmylou Harris are just a few of the artists whose images are part of a new exhibition at the Annenberg Space for Photography in Los Angeles, called Country: Portraits of an American Sound.

The show, which runs through the summer, features works by photographers who worked from the post-war era to the present day.

Curator Michael McCall of the Country Music Hall of Fame says the Annenberg Center insisted on focusing on a select number of photographers. He ended up choosing nine photographers to showcase in the exhibit. 

"By doing that I think it focuses you on the photography itself, so it becomes more than just a collection of country music photographs," said McCall on Take Two. "It becomes about the photography and the photographers as much as the people they're shooting."

Some of the photographers include Raeanne Rubenstein, who once worked with Andy Warhol, but went on to shoot country music stars for Rolling Stone, Life and other big magazines. Veteran Grand Ole Opry staff photographer, Les Leverett, captures Johnny Cash and others performing on stage. There's also an early photo of Willie Nelson looking youthful in the 1960s, when he first arrived to Nashville. 

Besides the 110 images on display, the exhibit also includes classic country albums and film posters, archival artifacts and a 30-minute documentary about the history and cultural impact of country music. You can catch the exhibit through September 28, 2014. 

Interview Highlights: 

On the early portrait of Willie Nelson:

"It's Willie when he first came to town, which was the early 1960s, and like all country stars at that time, he looked like an insurance man. His hair was parted into a pompadour, it's kind of a glamour shot. He's dressed in a suit and looking very stately and Mad Men-ish. Most people wouldn't recognize him."

On photographer Walden S. Fabry's work:

"Walden Fabry was a portrait photographer who worked in Peoria, Illinois. Minnie Pearl ran into him and had some shots done by him and loved them. She felt it took a glamour perspective on country music, which no one else was doing at the time. It has that soft focus and white background, very focused on the face and the expression in a way that you might see Ingmar Bergman or Humphrey Bogart. He came to Nashville at Minnie's request and ended up having a thriving business for many, many years."

On Raeanne Rubenstein's work:

"Raeanne Rubenstein, grew up in New York, Andy Warhol took her under his wing. She was also at Woodstock. She was shooting for People Magazine, Rolling Stone and Life, and the big magazines in the '60s. She has great shots of Jimi Hendrix and John Lennon and Yoko Ono, and Bob Dylan.

"At some point she started getting assignments to shoot country music stars. She started coming to Nashville and she fell in love with how accessible country music stars were, it was a whole different interaction than she had with rock stars and other people that she shot. They would invite her home and make dinner for her. So she ended up moving down here and she's been here for more than 30 years now."

On Gram Parsons's relationship with Nudie Cohn: 

"Nudie was this great tailor, based in L.A. He started off suiting for burlesque performers, then eventually cowboys like Gene Autry and Roy Rogers. By the '50s, every great country star was having these rhinestone, brocaded outfits that were made by Nudie. He became one of the most popular tailors Nashville has ever used.

"I think Gram Parsons — who was a rock and roller, but was interested in country music — wanted to pick up on that so he went to nudie and wanted to design an outfit that's based on the classic country look, but at the same time he made it his own, because it was marijuana leaves and poppies for heroin and pills and nude women. It's just a great shot."

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