- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 15, 2006

When suburban houses bristled with television antennas — before cable and Country Music Television — a District TV studio broadcast Jimmy Dean and local guest stars like Patsy Cline, the Stoneman Family and Roy Clark in black-and-white. Costume sequins reflected the bright lights into the camera and the sound of pedal steel guitar and fiddle filled the airwaves.

Back then, country music entertainment was regularly featured not only in downtown theaters and clubs, but also on evening Potomac cruises, where patrons could look out over the dim river banks at the lights of Washington.

Who could imagine then, in the heady 1950s, that a world-class stage would rise on a 17-acre site just downriver from Georgetown, and that it would bear the name of a man who was then hardly known outside of Capitol Hill?

By the time the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts opened its doors in 1971, country music’s heyday in Washington was a fading memory. Rabid bluegrass fans would continue to follow local heroes like the Seldom Scene in the 1970s and Johnson Mountain Boys in the 1980s, but real music connoisseurs know not to confuse the two genres, despite their common roots.

Time to shine up the cowboy boots, though. The Kennedy Center, a venue known more for grand opera than Grand Ole Opry, is hosting a three-week festival, “Country: A Celebration of America’s Music” beginning Monday. The program partners the Kennedy Center with the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum in Nashville, Tenn., and also will host an exhibit of poster art and artifacts from Hatch Show Print, a division of the Hall of Fame.

And out of pure serendipity, the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History on Friday opened its exhibit, “Honky-Tonk: Country Music Photographs by Henry Horenstein, 1972-1981,” a collection of black-and-white prints depicting country stars and their fans. The show will run through the summer.

• • •

Many Kennedy Center stages will be involved in the country music celebration. A schedule of concerts and venues accompanies this article.

“This festival honors country music, both past and present, as an important American art form,” says Kyle Young, museum director for the Country Music Hall of Fame. “Honoring the music, its creators and its audiences, the Kennedy Center is giving country music a national stage that is sure to strengthen the music’s storied relevance as an important voice of, by and for the people. We couldn’t be more thrilled.”

Festival performers include Vince Gill, Naomi Judd, Wynonna Judd, Kris Kristofferson, Ray Price, Earl Scruggs, Sam Bush, Jerry Douglas, Stuart Duncan, Bela Fleck, Allan Harris, Mark Schatz and Bryan Sutton.

The Grand Ole Opry will mark its 80th anniversary with a show in the Concert Hall March 26 featuring Travis Tritt, Marty Stuart and the Del McCoury Band. Master of ceremonies for the show will be Opry announcer Eddie Stubbs. Mr. Stubbs, whose family hails from the Washington area, has been an on-air personality for WSM-AM in Nashville for 11 years, but he has continued broadcasting weekly from American University’s WAMU-FM. The Eddie Stubbs Show, on Sundays from 3 to 5 p.m., has aired since 1990.

For those who’d like to brush up on their boot scootin’ in time for the Western swing finale with Asleep at the Wheel on April 9, the Kennedy Center is offering a country dance series on the three preceding Thursdays.

“Along with jazz, country music is America’s music,” says Kennedy Center Vice President of Artistic Programming Roman Terleckyj. “As the nation’s performing arts center, we feel that it is important to celebrate and highlight this uniquely American form of artistic expression.”

The festival marks a first for the Kennedy Center. Its only other significant recognition of country music has come through awards of the Kennedy Center Honors to Roy Acuff (1991), Johnny Cash (1996), Willie Nelson (1998) and Loretta Lynn (2003). The Kennedy Center produced a Texas Festival in 1991. In bluegrass, the Seldom Scene recorded its 15th anniversary concert at the Kennedy Center in 1986.

• • •

The exhibit of posters from Hatch Show Print, instantly recognizable for their style across the South for years, will open in the Terrace Gallery March 27 and run through April 16.

Some 140 posters will be on display from the 127-year-old Nashville print shop, which still uses moveable woodblock letterpresses and hand-carved artwork. The firm fills about 600 orders per year.

“Showing at the Kennedy Center, for me, is a big deal,” says Jim Sherraden, Hatch Show Print manager. He has worked as a printer there since 1984, when the company was “gurgling blood and should have been spilling ink instead.”

It took work to help get the shop on stable footing financially, Mr. Sherraden says; “that’s where the idea of preservation through production came to mind.”

The shop’s hand-carved artwork, old presses and type are now an arm of the Country Music Hall of Fame, with an archive “relevant to the history of country music,” Mr. Sherraden says.

Some 75 percent of the shop’s annual income is still derived from printing jobs. B.B. King and Willie Nelson are top clients, Mr. Sherraden says. But 25,000 fans each year make a pilgrimage to Hatch Show Print’s shop on Broadway in Nashville, where they can buy handprinted replicas of show posters featuring their favorite stars.

“There used to be regional show poster shops across the continent until the mid-‘60s,” Mr. Sherraden says. Like Hatch, the shops produced posters advertising carnivals, minstrel shows, vaudeville performances and businesses.

“I can’t explain the mystery as to why we’re still here,” Mr. Sherraden says, but he figures the company’s location in Nashville, producing posters for traveling shows from the Grand Ole Opry, probably helped. “We never modernized, and now there’s a revival of interest in letterpress.”

Among artifacts planned for the Kennedy Center exhibit are some of the shop’s largest blocks of type, which produce letters 76 inches tall. Mr. Sherraden says two blocks are needed to form each letter, and the blocks date at least to the 1880s.

“Our staff is in its mid-20s, with degrees in graphic design and printmaking, in that time of life between marriage and mortgage,” he says. “One of the attractions to our organic posters is the human element. I’m grateful that there’s an interest in our work, historically and today.”

The posters do more than advertise the music, he says.

“It’s an attraction to all of the senses. Historically, it reminds you of a concert you have seen or music that you like, and you don’t have a chance to celebrate the art of music in this CD- or digitally oriented world,” he says.

“Don’t go into this exhibition thinking you are just going to see history, because you are going to see history and the future, not just the past,” he says. “It’s going to be today’s work as well as yesterday’s.”

• • •

Henry Horenstein’s photos at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, on the other hand, freeze a moment in time: They document a confluence in country music history as traditional performers were making room for a second generation, says Shannon Perich, associate curator of photography at the museum.

Mr. Horenstein, who keeps his own Web site at www.henryhorenstein.com, is a professor of photography at the Rhode Island School of Design and one of the first to write a textbook on black-and-white photography, Ms. Perich says.

This show is based on his book, “Honky Tonk: Portraits of Country Music, 1972-1981,” published in 2003. Mr. Horenstein captured images of stalwarts like Mother Maybelle Carter as well as rising young stars on the cutting edge like Emmylou Harris, Ricky Skaggs and Waylon Jennings. It was a time when political and cultural influences were changing country music, when country performers sometimes “crossed over” into pop stardom, and alternative “outlaw” country stars emerged to challenge the Nashville establishment.

Fans play an integral part in the photographs.

Mr. Horenstein is “interested in the interaction that fans had with the performers,” Ms. Perich says, and the exhibit of 80 photos has an underlying theme of access to music, not only in a traditional stage setting, but also in the parking lots, in parks and festivals, where fans and musicians come together informally.

The exhibit was five years in the making, Ms. Perich says.

“We tried really hard, and Henry’s photos made it easy, not to be kitschy, not to be nostalgic. It’s reflective without being nostalgic,” she says.

Among the photos will be some artifacts from the American History Museum’s collections, including a 1930s-vintage guitar and country comedienne Minnie Pearl’s hat. The exhibit runs through Sept. 5.

Mr. Stubbs, the Opry announcer and WAMU fixture, wrote the forward for the Horenstein “Honky Tonk” book that inspired the exhibit.

“It’s a real transport back in time for me to look at those pictures,” he says.

In photographs of honky-tonks like Nashville’s Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge, Mr. Horenstein captured “a piece of Americana that is fading quickly away,” Mr. Stubbs says, because honky-tonks “are rapidly being replaced by [chain-restaurant] bars.”

• • •

Times have changed for the nation’s capital, too.

“There was a time when Washington was a tremendous hotbed of country music, right after World War II and into the 1950s,” says Mr. Stubbs, 44.

Even the term “country music” traces its roots to Washington-based promoter Connie B. Gay, who is in the Country Music Hall of Fame. It came from the title of his TV program, “Town & Country.”

The legendary Jimmie Rodgers, “America’s Blue Yodeler,” once broadcast a weekly radio program from Washington. He made his first major appearance on Aug. 4, 1928, at the Earle Theatre (renamed the Warner Theatre in 1947).

Ernest V. “Pop” Stoneman moved his musical family to the Washington suburbs in 1932 — to find work to supplement his earnings in entertainment. A carpenter, he eventually found work at a naval gun factory.

But Mr. Stoneman had recorded a No. 3 hit with “The Titanic” on Okeh Records in 1924, and is said to have persuaded Ralph Peer to take his Victor Talking Machine to Bristol, Va., for the 1927 auditions that discovered Mr. Rodgers and the Carter Family. The Stonemans claim to be the longest continuously performing family act in country music, and it’s a claim that’s hard to dispute.

Family member Roni Stoneman starred on the “Hee Haw” television show with fellow Washington picker Roy Clark.

Mr. Gay, who hailed from Lizard Lick, N.C., came to Washington to start a career in broadcasting. After a stint with the Farm Security Administration’s National Farm and Home Hour, he worked at WARL, the precursor to WAVA, and developed the first all-day, all-country radio format in the nation. When television came to town, he got to work, producing the TV programs that eventually starred Mr. Dean in the 1950s.

Mr. Gay is credited with being one of the first to use the term “country” to describe what had, until then, been somewhat derisively called “hillbilly” music. He was the founding president of the Country Music Association and died in 1989.

Like Mr. Stoneman, many folks came from Appalachia to Washington looking for work during the Depression “and they brought their love of the music with them,” Mr. Stubbs says.

Washington responded. Producers like Mr. Gay gave the transplanted hillbillies what they craved in entertainment and stars were born.

Times changed, though. Political upheaval and demonstrations in the 1960s combined with changing musical tastes to take some of the luster away.

“The final nail,” Mr. Stubbs says, “was the ‘68 riots” that followed the assassination of Martin Luther King. “People were afraid to come into Washington,” Mr. Stubbs says.

“Country music didn’t stop coming to Washington, but it isn’t the hotbed it once was,” he says. “It’s just a different day and time, that’s all. Plus the economics of the industry are different now than they were then.”

With concurrent exhibits and celebrations at two of the District’s — and the nation’s — most prestigious institutions, Washington welcomes country music back in style.

Country music’s past and present

Country’s cool. You knew that, but now the multiple celebrations of the genre in town — performance and posters at the Kennedy Center, photos at the National Museum of American History — back you up. Here’s a guide to the jamboree.

The photographs

• National Museum of American History: 14th Street and Constitution Avenue Northwest. “Honky-Tonk: Country Music Photographs by Henry Horenstein, 1972-1981.” Eighty black-and-white images of venues, country music artists and fans. Artifacts include hats, record jackets, fan magazines, an instrument, a fan scrapbook. 10 a.m.-5:30 p.m. daily through Sept. 5. Free. 202/357-2700 or americanhistory.si.edu

The posters

• Kennedy Center Terrace Gallery: F Street and New Hampshire Avenue Northwest. “Hatch Show Print.” Some 140 posters from the 127-year-old Nashville, Tenn., print shop, which still uses moveable woodblock letterpresses and hand-carved artwork to publicize musicians and performers across the South. Poster images range from Marquis the Magician to Bessie Smith and Louis Armstrong, to Grand Ole Opry stars and Elvis Presley. 10 a.m.-closing March 27 to April 16. Free. 202/467-4600 or kennedy-center.org

The performance: ‘Country: A Celebration of America’s Music’

All events at the Kennedy Center, F Street and New Hampshire Avenue Northwest. March 20-April 9. 202/467-4600 or kennedy-center.org

• ‘Roots of Country Music’: Family Theater. Performance Plus event on the history of country music — from its days of honky-tonk and juke joints to concert halls and stadiums. Featuring the Country Music Hall of Fame’s John Rumble, Jim Lauderdale, Ralph Stanley and James Shelton. Entrance 6 p.m. March 20. $15.

• Millennium Stage Celebration and opening performance with Earl Scruggs: Millennium Stage. The banjo great brings his Family and Friends band for an evening of bluegrass to kick off the celebration. 6 p.m. March 21. Free.

• Country Dance Series: Opera House stage. Performance Plus event teaching two-steps, waltzes and line dances, leading up to a country music dance party on the South Plaza April 9. Door opens at 6 p.m. March 23 and 30, April 6. $36 for the series ($32 subscribers/members).

• KC Jazz Club: Allan Harris and Cross That River: the Saga of a Black Cowboy: Terrace Gallery. Allan Harris presents a jazz concert portrait of the wild American West with the Cross That River band. 7:30 and 9:30 p.m. March 25. $25.

• Grand Ole Opry 80th Anniversary Concert: Concert Hall. Travis Tritt, Marty Stuart, the Del McCoury Band, Eddie Stubbs and others. 7:30 p.m. March 26. $15-$70.

• Tennessee Mafia Jug Band featuring Leroy Troy: Millennium Stage. This Tennessee band made up of Lester and Mike Armistead, Kent Blanton and Leroy Troy will perform toe-tapping tunes influenced by Roy Acuff and Brother Oswald. 6 p.m. March 26. Free.

• Country Music Guitar Master Class: Family Theater. Performance Plus seminar. Marty Stuart, Kenny Vaughan and Bill Lloyd explore their art and critique performances by local guitarists. Entrance 6 p.m. March 27. $15.

• Bill Kirchen & Too Much Fun with the Rosslyn Mountain Boys: Millennium Stage. The Grammy-nominated “Titan” of the Telecaster guitar Bill Kirchen joins the Rosslyn Mountain Boys to celebrate an American musical tradition where country music draws upon its origins in blues and bluegrass and in the western swing of Texas and California honky-tonks. 6 p.m. March 29. Free.

• The Country Salutes Country: Concert Hall. The many roots of the art form, with Vince Gill, Naomi Judd, Wynonna Judd, and Country Music Hall of Fame members Kris Kristofferson and Ray Price. 7:30 p.m. March 31. $15-$150.

• The Grascals: Millennium Stage. The Grascals share an appreciation for the innovative mingling of bluegrass and country music that has been a hallmark of the Nashville scene for more than 40 years. 6 p.m. April 2. Free.

• Country Songwriters in the Round: Family Theater. Performance Plus master class. Songwriters including Matraca Berg, Guy Clark, Shawn Camp and Jeff Hanna lead a master class of local songwriters. Entrance 6 p.m. April 3. $15.

• String Masters: Eisenhower Theater. Mandolin player Sam Bush, steel guitarist Jerry Douglas, fiddler Stuart Duncan, banjo player Bela Fleck, bassist Mark Schatz and guitarist Bryan Sutton perform in an evening that explores the roots and progressive trends of country music. 8 p.m. April 4. $25-$60.

• Songwriters in the Round: Millennium Stage. Guy Clark, Matraca Berg and Shawn Camp in solos of their biggest hits. 6 p.m. April 6. Free.

• Grand Finale: Millennium Stage Ninth Anniversary with Asleep at the Wheel: South Plaza. Interactive concert featuring music and dance. 6 p.m. April 9. Free.

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