'Shooting Stars': Raeann Rubenstein's photos offer revealing look at country's idols
Stand too long in front of a country music star's rhinestone-encrusted wardrobe and the reason why the genre's easy relationship with photography matters becomes readily apparent.
A new exhibit at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum eschews that centurylong history of approachable yet idyllic celebrity to highlight how often, when out of the spotlight, country music stars' best, most honestly engrossing selves appear.
The museum's free lobby exhibit, "Raeanne Rubenstein: Shooting Stars" (available through May), features photographs of numerous musical and pop culture celebrities, including Johnny Cash, Loretta Lynn, Barbara Mandrell, Dolly Parton and Jerry Lee Lewis, shot between 1969 and 1979.
Rubenstein, a Staten Island native, died in 2019. Her five-decade career took her to Andy Warhol's Factory and John Lennon and Yoko Ono's bedroom. Her work appeared in the pages of Life, People, Rolling Stone, Time and other publications.
One photo in the exhibit in particularly is more arresting than most.
Freshly divorced from George Jones in 1976, Tammy Wynette is captured by Rubenstein seated on her home patio, wearing a blond bouffant wig, yellow flared-leg slacks, white turtleneck sweater, oversized sunglasses, a string of large white pearls and open-toed sandals.
She's holding a lit cigarette, and it appears that the title of her No. 1 hit of the era, "'Til I Can Make It on My Own," has never been truer.
"It's one of the greatest photographs ever," exclaims Michael McCall, a senior writer and editor at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum.
In the 2014 documentary "Country: Portraits of an American Sound " Rubenstein said "the shoes, glasses and wig [accurately] reflected her taste and lifestyle."
There are other photos from that shoot, McCall adds.
"But that one contains so much strength," he says. "[Tammy] was always seen as so delicate and fragile, but in that shot, she looks like a powerful — maybe even angry, emotional and tough — queen."
As a visual medium, country music's story could be best defined by the infinite construction and deconstruction of the feedback loop between the genre's adoration of marketing-glamourized hokeyness and the mainstream notoriety-driven desire for honest cosmopolitanism.
Rubenstein said she considered her job to be "making [stars] reveal themselves to be [authentically] captured in a 250th of a second." Her uncanny ability to get superstars to reveal themselves in less than "star marketable" moments grows in importance.
The astonishing number of intersections at which Rubenstein could photograph a star along twin continuums defined by cosmopolitan cool, well-branded hokeyness, sophisticated, countrypolitan impulses, or raw outlaw authenticity adds intrigue to her work.
Conveying these moments allowed country's stars to be seen regularly in mainstream periodicals in the 1970s. In many ways they birthed the genre's entrenchment in serious conversations about America's guiding cultural forces.
"[Rubenstein's] images are a little more human, real, soulful and less concerned with protecting carefully crafted caricatures and public images," McCall says.
"Because she was so friendly, yet also unnervingly bold and persuasive as a person, stars felt uncharacteristically comfortable in showing their hard-working and down-to-earth selves in her photography. I can't imagine anyone else shooting Barabara Mandrell having her makeup applied before a 'Hee Haw' appearance."
McCall highlights the commercial heights country music achieved immediately following the late 1960s through 1970s era chronicled in the exhibition as a contributing factor as to why Rubenstein's style of photography is not more widely in vogue.
"Labels earning that type of revenue definitely wanted to exercise more control in how they were portrayed."
Bittersweetly, he adds that the access to America's mainstream that Rubenstein's photography offered Nashville's elite — once they had it — made her work and its candid style less important.
"There's still value, though, in digging deeper to discover an artist's actual authenticity," McCall says.
A statement Rubenstein makes in the 2014 documentary summarizes why her legacy matters.
"Photographers were not hired by the labels to tell the truth about the stars' personalities," she said, "but that was my exact interest. I liked making them reveal themselves to me. I felt that if you put that into a photo that it would make the artist even more successful."
This article originally appeared on Nashville Tennessean: Country Music Hall of Fame showcases photographer Raeann Rubenstein