I first noticed the work of Henry Horenstein when he published his 1987 book, Racing Days, a photographic diary in gritty black and white, compiled largely in the now mostly defunct northeastern thoroughbred circuit. I knew his name at the time to be vaguely familiar from other contexts, though I hadn’t yet made the connection to the body of work he’d done beginning in the 1970s of the world of country music. Seeing the photographs in the new edition of Honky Tonk published together, I finally got it—I’d been admiring these pictures of bluegrass pickers and hillbilly crooners for years without realizing their author. Horenstein captured the extremes of the country-western world over the years, from the Hee Haw familiars onstage at the Grand Ole Opry to old-time cult favorites like the Blue Sky Boys; from seventies country-pop meteors like Jeannie C. Riley to such bona-fide C&W stars as Conway Twitty and Porter Wagoner. But what makes Honky Tonk such a terrific document are the photographs Horenstein took of the places where the music was heard—legendary joints like Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge in Nashville and long-gone venues like the Hillbilly Ranch in Boston—and the regulars inside.
With the republication of Honky Tonk, I spoke to Horenstein, now based in Boston and a professor at the Rhode Island School of Design, about how a nice young guy from the University of Chicago got involved in documenting what the “King of the Strings” Joe Maphis summed up as the “dim lights, thick smoke, and loud, loud music.”