Film director Steven Kochones, the cinematic powerhouse behind the new Arclight Productions documentary, “Country: Portraits of an American Sound”, captures the fundamental American schizophrenia embodied by this sprawling (and often drawling) musical genre, equal parts honky-tonkin’ and holy-rollin’, with designer denim, diamonds, and plenty of rhinestone cowboys and Dixie chicks in the mix.
In this spirited new 37-minute film, presented at the Annenberg Space for Photography through September 28 (Annenbergspaceforphotography.org), more than a dozen featured country recording artists try to articulate what country’s all about. Keith Urban says country music is “like a church”, and that it consists of “three chords and the truth.” Merle “The Hag” Haggard comments, “Mama, trains, and goin’ away—that’s all you have to know.” Yes—but the story is even better told by Kochones’ deft filmmaking itself, which integrates the work of 10 exceptional photographers including Henry Diltz, Leigh Weiner, Raeanne Rubenstein, Michael Wilson, Ethan Russell, and Grand Ole Opry staff photographer Les Leverett.
The Arclight Productions documentary serves as a learned but accessible guide through this exhibit which includes artifacts such as a vintage banjo and a jukebox, located on a mini-dance floor and stocked with country hits from the past half-century, arranged by decade. The film adds a needed dimension of context and insight to the portraits, many of which, like those of Dolly Parton, remain mysterious beneath the sequined Nudies get-ups and rehearsed smiles.
To create “Country: Portraits of an American Sound”, the award-winning Arclight Productions team conducted more than 40 interviews with artists, photographers and music historians in locations ranging from Nashville, Tennessee to Vienna, Virginia where Lyle Lovett has performed for two decades, to high, lonesome, and oft-scorned Bakersfield, California, home of the Buck Owens sound which continues to inspire contemporary recording artists, notably Dwight Yoakum.
The film, commissioned by the Annenberg Space for Photography, follows Kochones’ enormous success with “Who Shot Rock & Roll”, which debuted at the Tribeca Film Festival in 2013. Arclight Productions has made more than a dozen documentaries for the Annenberg, as well as original content for museums and individual artists.
The intimate nature of the exhibition space, formerly the Schubert Theatre, lends itself to the idiosyncratic nature of country music, which continues to morph moreso than any American genre. From its nasal, Anglo-centric origins in the coal-minin’ hills and hollers of the Great Smoky Mountains, beyond the reach of first-wave radio signals, swooping south into the bayous and the Mississippi Delta to integrate shifting, polyrhythmic beats and gutbucket blues-turnarounds, then westward, ho! to the twang of Texas and the ranchera-lilt of Mexican border, country music has been there and back. It’s gone electric, then returned, like a chastened prodigal, with new respect for the plain-spoken and acoustic. And now Tyler Hubbard, Brian Kelley and Big Smo among others blend hip-hop expressions into the newest infusion of country-rap.
The array of materials assembled to create this exhibit reflect this self-contradicting identity. Michael Wilson’s images of Lyle Lovett, positioned across deep turquoise walls, seem like wry family portraits after hearing Lovett discuss the notoriety of his hair on-camera. The late Leigh Wiener captures the brooding Man in Black himself (Johnny Cash) in various states of Biblical-seeming revelation, placed on black walls which face into a corner. Ethan Russell’s dewy shot of Linda Ronstadt, posed in a white gauze tube-top for her “Hasten Down the Wind” album and displayed on a blood-red wall, brings back a generation’s worth of adolescent yearning that was as much at home in Newark as in Nashville.
The film touches only lightly on the politics of country music and how it is perceived. For instance, when three “country”-flavored half-hours simultaneously shared television air-time on CBS – “Hee-Haw”, “The Beverly Hillbillies” and “Green Acres”—programming executives pulled the plug. The surprise here is that even these synthetic parodies of “country” occasionally struck on a nugget of authenticity. “Hee-Haw” hosts Buck Owens and Roy Clark (the latter is interviewed in Kochones’ film) were in fact defining country artists of their era. And the scintillating Flatt and Scruggs accompaniment to “The Beverly Hillbillies” show credits teases with a mere flash of the instrumental brilliance of true vintage bluegrass.
A generation ago, Merle Haggard sang in the world’s mellowest whiskey-honey baritone that he was “Proud to Be an Okie from Muskogee”, and that anyone who was runnin’ down our country (i.e. protesting the war in Vietnam) was “…walkin’ on the fightin’ side of me.” Country music per se may still be associated with hard-line nationalism and conservatism. But as Kochones’ documentary reveals, seeking out the country sound, whether in song or in image, is the quest for a non-partisan and deeper American authenticity.
Pictured: Henry Diltz photograph of Ramblin' Jack Elliot, "last of the Brooklyn cowboys", California, 1973.
Country: Portraits of an American Sound
May 31 – September 28, 2014
Annenberg Space for Photography
2000 Avenue of the Stars, Los Angeles, CA 90067
COUNTRY: PORTRAITS OF AN AMERICAN SOUND is a presentation of the Annenberg Space for Photography in association with the Country Music Hall of Fame® and Museum and the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. Produced and Directed by Steven Kochones. Producer: Joe Russo, Director of Photography: Luke Geissbühler, Editors: James Pendorf, Juli Vizza.
Tuesdays through Fridays: 11 am – 6 pm
Saturdays and Sundays: 11 am – 9 pm
COUNTRY: PORTRAITS OF AN AMERICAN SOUND
KENNY ROGERS: MY COUNTRY play continuously.
Admission is free.
Parking with validation is $3.50 Wednesdays - Fridays and $1.00 on weekends.